We’re all secret agents now | Chuck's World

By Chuck Sigars | Sep 14, 2016

Who among us hasn’t wrestled with big, existential questions by watching old episodes of “The Office” from time to time?

Or delved back into the 40-odd episodes of “Sports Night,” which ran only a couple of seasons in the final years of the 20th century but still has a passionate fan base?

I know lots of people who like to revisit “The West Wing,” too. There seems to be more than a few using that show, now off the air for a decade, to satisfy some desire to believe in the possibility of a functioning government that serves at the pleasure of the electorate. Even if it’s a fictional government.

The technology tsunami that struck us in the 1990s has been, I think, more or less a net positive. One of those positives is that we have immediate access to more entertainment than we could possibly consume, and more is always on the way.

At the same time, there’s comfort in looking back at old favorites, and lately I’ve been doing that. Just a bit, and usually late at night before bed.

I’ve seen bits and pieces of all three of the above shows over the past few months, mostly out of boredom or maybe procrastination, and I’m not ruling out the whole wrestling with existential questions thing, but mostly boredom. And nostalgia.

Even though there was no real method to my madness, I noted some interesting things.

“The Office” (I’m speaking of the American version) ran for essentially the first decade of the 21st century, and skimming through seasons reminded me of how subtly our daily lives, and mostly our technology, has changed. Lots of flip phones in the beginning.

“The West Wing” was a favorite show, although it’s funny now to note the way they refer to “the Internet” as a separate entity, mostly an annoyance, as opposed to an integral part of their lives.

And “Sports Night,” a really wonderful half-hour dramedy created by Aaron Sorkin (before he went on to “The West Wing”), is surprising for what’s missing.

No smart phones. The Internet is alive and well, but rarely mentioned. There is, of course, no YouTube or social media to fill in story lines. They somehow managed.

Not to take away from those shows, even if they’re dated. They hold up as solid entertainment.

It’s just that they also serve as a time capsule for the lives we led 15 years ago, and while the characters portrayed seemed to be perfectly functional human beings without all of our current toys, I was struck by a story line that never showed up.

As I’m sure I’ve noted before, if I’d known as a child that my future would involve using passwords a lot, I would have imagined a much cooler job.

Instead, most of us now at least occasionally buy something online. Some of us bank online, invest online, store our precious data and photos and music online.

All of these sites require passwords, of course, to ensure our safety. And passwords, as you’ve probably gleaned from news reports, are beginning to be a problem.

This past weekend I received two email notices from credit monitoring services. The messages seemed a little alarmist, although a quick check showed a perfectly normal situation. A couple of credit inquiries, initiated by me in a roundabout way, set off alarm bells.

Better safe than sorry.

Having someone else keep an eye on my credit is a nice thing, I suppose, although I didn’t request it. These are free services provided by websites whose databases, which include user names and passwords, have been breached. Hacked. Ransomed, in some cases.

We are not in those innocent times of the late 1990s anymore.

And the funny thing is, we should feel pretty safe, generally speaking. Crime has been decreasing for decades across the board, with only a few spikes here and there.

We have air bags and smoke alarms and elaborate home security systems.

We are, in many ways, in charge of our own safety, and most of us have risen to the occasion and taken precautions along these lines.

Taking the big items off the shelf – automobile deaths, heart disease, extreme sports – and our chances of dying prematurely are actually pretty low.

About 264 of us get killed being struck by a bus every year. Roughly 69 Americans every year die from lawnmower-related accidents, which I don’t even want to think about. Lighting strikes kill about 30. And I don’t get it, but about 737 Americans will die falling out of bed.

And about 40 million or so Americans suffer from identity theft, most of it coming from online vermin who steal your passwords.

So consider this my yearly public service announcement. You’ve probably heard it before, but that’s never stopped me and so here’s the truth: Your passwords are vulnerable, and you can fix it.

Never use the same one for multiple sites (one hack is all it takes). Use a password manager, like LastPass or Pass1, which can function on your computer and your phone and other internet-connected devices.

Use two-factor authentication whenever possible (you get a code on your phone or another way to verify it’s you).

If I can’t persuade you to construct long, elaborate, 17-character passwords for each account (this is where the password manager comes in), then at least keep track of the latest data breaches and change your password when advised.

And get out of bed carefully in the morning. Don’t be a statistic.

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