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The sharks of the Internet

J.F. Rice | Sept. 7, 2015
That’s what hackers are — they should be feared, but our fears are completely out of proportion.

I think the answer is in fact no. Look at all the security breaches of the last 18 months — Target, Home Depot, Michaels and Chase, for example. How many of them were detected in progress? None. The victims were completely unaware they were being hacked, and the reason is that the hackers were subtle. I would think the victims would have been alerted if their computers started freezing up. When you're hacked, you don't see it while it's happening.

In fact, today’s hackers are very sophisticated. They exploit zero-day Adobe Flash vulnerabilities to invisibly install malware through malicious advertisements on websites, or poison Web searches to lure victims into malicious search results. The least sophisticated hackers still send old-fashioned email phishing scams, but even those install malware silently, without disruption.

I’ve also had several friends make the hacker assumption over the last several months. Anything strange or unusual seems to be caused by a malicious actor, in today’s common wisdom. I can’t help but scoff when I hear stories of phantom mouse movements (inevitably caused by rundown batteries in wireless mice), or phantom keystrokes (invariably the result of rundown batteries in wireless keyboards). Or even the dreaded (Microsoft Windows) Blue Screen of Death, which is always caused by instability in the operating system and its device drivers.

So why are people so quick to assume the worst-case scenario (a hacker did it) instead of the simplest explanation (the software isn’t perfect)? I imagine it’s because of two factors. One, they have seen too many news stories and movies where hackers are portrayed with magical, almost godlike powers of technological influence as they tap away at their keyboards. People just don’t understand the realities of software vulnerabilities and exploits. And two, I think the fear of hackers is akin to the terror of sharks. Because sharks are portrayed in movies and TV as vicious monsters, and most people don’t understand them, they are perceived as utterly terrifying. Never mind that you’re 20 times more likely to be killed by a cow than a shark, and nearly 60 times more likely to be killed by a bee. And we are all 33,000 times more likely to be killed by a car than a shark. It’s the shark we fear. We fear what we don’t understand, and what we see on TV. And to most people, hackers are unfathomable, dreadful apparitions that can strike at any time, with no warning, for no reason.

Should we fear hackers? Absolutely. But should we fear them unreasonably, without cause? I think not. Come on, people, get it together. We all need to develop a sense of perspective.

 

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