First off, for those of you in the United States, I hope you’ve had a nice Thanksgiving and Thanksgiving break. There is a lot to be thankful, among which is, to me, the opportunity to continue sharing my thoughts on technological topics with all of you. I see it as none other than a privilege and to have you all read it and discuss what I have to say is very humbling. In the larger picture of Thanksgiving break, to a lot of you, it meant “Black Friday” — the massive shop-fest involving numerous computer/technology stores along with traditional stores. If you’re interested, you can read a further description of Black Friday on this website.
On to this week’s column. I wanted to point out an interesting comment made by a few members about my last article concerning efficient use of technology in counting election votes. A majority of the responses I received pointed out security needs — how the nation as a whole can trust the integrity of the ballots cast. When writing the article, I gave the topic little thought — I dismissed such notion as a non-issue. The fact is security IS an issue. The system used for counting ballots should be no different than the system running your computer right now — more than likely, Microsoft Windows, which, like all operating systems, has vulnerabilities. Then I question myself in a broader issue: Why has security been such a big issue in recent years? How has technology or more specifically the mode in which we communicate using technology, come to deserve a label of mistrust?
Let’s take a trek back in time — I will try to be brief here as I cannot cover the entire history in the scope of this column. Back in 1988, “Computer Security” was a phrase used for the most paranoid, and to many, it frankly lacked meaning. For those, the first Internet “worm” came as an utter surprise — developed by Robert Tappan Morris, then a graduate student at Cornell University. It caused untold damage on masses of unprepared systems throughout the web. The computer that Robert T. Morris used for his attacks was from an open MIT artificial intelligence lab UNIX system. Essentially, the worm filled up idle memory with copies of itself, rendering the system busy and denying the user from executing any task on the system. Programmers worked day and night to find a fix and solution to the worm. Yes, it was that bad. Very bad. However, even after the Morris Worm, which caught the world by surprise with its “Denial of Service” attacks, most people felt relatively safe with computers and the security of their data.
Little did people know that this was, in fact, a trailblazer rather than an odd, isolated incident. Sure, following the fiasco, many system builders implemented the more-secure standard log-in mechanism. This did little, since it was, after all, the perception of the people in which security rides on. The average computer user, throughout much of the early and mid 1990’s, believed that the internet and computer was a safe place. The reasoning, of course, was that hacking into someone else’s account was virtually useless and hard to do.
And for perspective sakes, in 1991, Symantec Corporation released the first version of the now-infamous Norton AntiVirus software. A majority of people dismissed the need for such software, rendering it useless for the common user who “doesn’t do much with the computer”. Well, needless to say, that changed. Mal-intent programmers begin to develop email messages that essentially deliberately delete entire contents of hard drives. And with the level of security on many systems, this really didn’t need to be sophisticated code.
I’m sure a lot of you can start remembering what it came to from here. Essentially, there were a number of deceptive email messages that lured the user to unknowingly installing harmful software onto their systems. Well, that’s a theme we see today too.
The real point of looking at the past is, of course, to see how computer security has evolved from not long ago. Fifteen years ago, the notion of home computers was starting to pick up. That further escalated with Microsoft’s release of its Windows 95 operating system.
If you take a step back, it is truly sad what the technological world has come to in these terms. The fact of reality is NO computer is completely safe if connected to the internet. When making an electronic product, security plays an undeniable part in its development. You have to ask yourself security questions before you open what looks like harmless message. You have to make sure your antivirus software is up-to-date so that the latest bit of packet that comes through the global internet cannot harm you. In fact, you have to make sure that your computer is secure within a reasonable amount of time since connecting to a high-speed internet connection or else it will be compromised, on average, within 20 minutes.
Remember that the motive to an average hacker is all about the money. An average hacker or programmer makes a great deal of money per successful attempt at infiltration and yes — there are a lot of successful attempts. As a result, every method used to compromise any given person’s personal data, whether it be an inbox full of email to secret financial data, has seen a very sharp increase in the last few years. And because of this, you no longer can cruise the internet without worrying about what will hit you in terms of malware. It is because of a large group of mal-intent opportunists who take advantage of any sort of vulnerabilities (in this case, computer security) that you have to think twice. You secure your system because you have to, not because it’s a nice thing to do.
Numerous advances are made through the aid of technology; unfortunately, it comes with a price (in both senses). Perhaps looking at the glass half empty, it looks like computer technology has some incredible downsides in that regard. As always, I’m eager to hear from all of you on what you have to say on the topic — please feel free to comment below.
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