Heads in the cloud

By Chuck Sigars | Aug 15, 2012

I don’t scare easily. I can say this with confidence, knowing that I avoid scary things as much as possible. I saw “Alien” in a movie theater in 1979 and that was enough fear for one lifetime.

I worry, of course. I get anxious. I dwell, even, sometimes, on the dark side of our existence, on culture and politics and environmental issues, but they don’t scare me. Not really.

Also, I should note that this lack of fear has to be taken with a grain of summer. It’s not hard to stay sunny when there’s actual sunshine.

But this story scared me.

It’s an old story, too, given the compressed state of our news absorption these days; when you read this, it will be about a week old. It might feel ancient and so yesterday’s news, like that Michael Phelps guy.

And it’s a subject I wrote about a few months ago. I run the risk of being ancient myself. Every day, in fact.

It’s something I think is important, though, and even though it swept through the Internet community of people who care about this sort of thing, it’s possible you missed it.

I’ll sum up, but first I need to establish some credibility.

And I can’t. Every time I think I can, every time I start to make a mental list of my computing bona fides, my decades of key tapping and logging and learning, I get overwhelmed by what I don’t know.

I worked on my first computer network the year before “Alien” came out. I’ve bought far more personal computers than cars. I’ve written simple programs for large corporations, and even simpler ones for my kids to play around with. I’ve been wandering the online world since the days of 1200 baud and bulletin boards.

But mostly what I am is a user. An engaged user, maybe. A user with an interest in all things tech, too, which essentially means skimming the technology news every day, trying out new tweaks, learning about new threats, figuring out what the really smart people have already figured out.

Engaged and paranoid. It’s hard to avoid.

So I want you to be paranoid, too. Unless you’ve managed to stay away from the 21st century and resist the pull of personal computing – and I know people who have – you live in the same world as I do.

We shop. We chat. We send and receive pictures, we watch videos and listen to music, we spend time on Facebook and other social media. We engage, being social creatures.

Mat Honan is one of us, although he has his own bona fides. Honan is a senior writer for Wired, a technology magazine, and he got hacked the other day. Not in an annoying, embarrassing, time-consuming way. In a devastating way.

Hacked. Meaning that some 19-year-old criminal, someone who won’t go to prison but surely should, stole Mat Honan’s life, if briefly.

It’s a pretty glorious hack, if you like ingenuity, if you can avoid the viciousness of it, if you like thinking that old ways translate into new ways pretty easily.

We now call it, I guess, social engineering, but in the old days we’d simply call it a con job. Capitalizing on a couple of small errors that someone like Honan shouldn’t have made, and making use of basic information that is easily available online, whether you’re a well-known writer or my mom, this creep convinced an online retailer (i.e., Amazon.com) that he was Mat Honan, using that old-fashioned technology we used to call the telephone.

There’s not enough room here to go into the details, although Honan himself wrote an article at Wired.com that’s definitely worth the read, even if you don’t scare easily.

I’ll also note that Amazon and Apple have changed their security measures as a result of this story. This is how it always works: We think about the barn door after the horse is nowhere to be found.

To be fair, Mat Honan still has his house, and his furniture, and I assume his health. He has his online identity back. He lost some pictures of his kids and a ton of emails. His bank account was never threatened.

What he lost, though, was his innocence, in a way. A way we should all pay attention to.

Also to be fair: The chances of this happening to you are remote, statistical only. Mr. Honan was singled out for a specific reason, if bizarre (he had a Twitter name the hacker wanted; the rest was just malicious).

But many of us inhabit this world now, and there are steps we can take. I worry that most of us don’t think about them. I wrote this in the hopes that some of you now will.

Because even if you don’t pay attention to technology stories, you know about the Internet, and you’ve probably heard of the Cloud, a flimsy, fun name for the massive collection of distant computer servers that store so much of our lives now.

And as I say, unless you’ve resisted this world, it’s something we all share, to varying degrees. Even if you know nothing about the Cloud.

Because the Cloud knows a lot about you.

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