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Security Is Ruining the Internet

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Another major cyberattack, another wave of articles telling you how to protect your data has me thinking about European ruins. Those medieval fortresses and castles had walls ten feet thick made of solid stone; they were guarded by mean, heavily armored, men. The barbarians got in anyway.

At the time, those invasions felt like the end of the world. But life goes on. Today’s Europeans live in houses and apartment buildings that, compared to castles of the Middle Ages, have no security at all. Yet: no raping, no pillaging. People are fine.

Security is overrated.

The ransomware attack that crippled targets as diverse as FedEx and British hospitals reminds me of something that we rarely talk about even though it’s useful wisdom: A possession that is so valuable that you have to spend a lot of money and psychic bandwidth to protect it often feels like more of a burden than a boon.

You hear it all the time: Change your passwords often. Use different passwords for different accounts. Install File Vault. Use encrypted communications apps. At what point do we throw up our hands, change all our passwords to “password” and tell malicious hackers to come on in, do your worse?

I owned a brand-new car once. I loved the look and the smell but hated the anxiety. What if some jerk dented it? Sure enough, within a week and the odometer reading in the low three digits, another motorist scratched the bumper while pulling out of a parallel parking space. I was so determined to restore the newness that I paid $800 for a new bumper. Which got scratched too. That was 13 years, 200,000 miles and a lot of dings ago. Still drive the same car. I don’t care about dents.

I’m liberated.

The Buddha taught that material attachments bring misery. He was right. During the 1980s crack epidemic addicts stole car stereos to finance their fixes. To avoid smashed windows, New Yorkers took to posting “No Radio” signs on their cars.

But the really smart drivers’ signs read “Door unlocked, no radio.” It worked.

Hackers, we’re told, are ruining the Internet. I say our reaction to hack attacks has ruined it. It’s like 9/11. Three thousand people died. But attacking Afghanistan and Iraq killed more than a million. We should have sucked it up instead.

Security often destroys the very thing it’s supposed to protect. Take the TSA — please! Increased airport security measures after 9/11 have made flying so unpleasant that Americans are driving more instead. Meanwhile, “civil aviation” flights out of small airports — which have no or minimal security screenings — are increasingly popular. So are trains — no X-ray machines at the train station, either. Get rid of TSA checkpoints at the airport, let people walk their loved ones to the gate so they can wave goodbye, and I bet more people would fly in spite of the risk.

It’s not just government. Individuals obsess over security to the point that it makes the thing they’re protecting useless.

For my 12th birthday my dad gave me a 10-speed road bicycle. I still have that Azuki. It weighs a ton but it runs great. It’s worth maybe $20.

Bike theft is rife in Berkeley and Manhattan, but I tooled around both places on that banana yellow relic of the Ford Administration without fear of anything but the shame of absorbing insults from kids on the street. I often didn’t bother to lock up my beater. Never had a problem.

In my early 40s and feeling flush, I dropped $2400 on a royal blue Greg LeMond racing bike. Terrified that my prize possession might get stolen, I only ride it to destinations I deem ridiculously safe or where I’ll only have to leave it outside for a few minutes. So I hardly use it.
I’m an idiot.

Nice things are, well, nice to have. But they’re also a pain in the ass. In college one of my girlfriends (who I am not suggesting was a “thing,” obviously, and whom equally obviously I never thought I “had” in any ownership-y sense) had dazzling big blue eyes and golden blonde hair down to her waist and was so striking that guys literally walked into lampposts while gawking at her. Being seen with her was great for my ego. But every outing entailed a risk of violence as dudes catcalled and wolf-whistled; chivalry (and my girlfriend) dictated that I couldn’t ignore all of them. I sometimes suggested the 1980s equivalent of “Netflix and chill” (Channel J and wine coolers?) rather than deal with the stress. (We broke up for other reasons.)

So back to the big ransomware attack. What should you do if your ‘puter locks you out of your files unless you fork over $300? Wipe your hard drive and move on.

Back up regularly, Internet experts say, and this threat is one reason why. With a recent backup you can usually wipe your hard drive and restore your files from a backed-up version that predates the virus. Take that, villains! But no one does.

Meanwhile, our online lives are becoming as hobbled by excessive security as the airlines. Like the countless locks on Gabe Kaplan’s Brooklyn apartment door in “Welcome Back Kotter,” two-step authentication helps — but at what cost? You have to enter your password, wait for a text — if you’re traveling overseas, you have to pay a dollar or more to receive it — and enter it before accessing a site. Tech companies force us to choose a new password each time we forget the old one. Studies show that makes things worse: most users choose simpler passwords because they’re easier to remember.

The only thing to fear, FDR told us, is fear itself. What if we liberated ourselves from the threat of cyberattack — and a ton of work maintaining online security — by not having anything on our Internet-connected devices that we care about?

This would require a mental shift.

First, we should have fewer things online. When you think about it, many devices are connected to the Internet for a tiny bit of convenience but at significant risk to security. Using an app to warm up your house before you come home is nifty, but online thermostats are hardly worth the exposure to hackers who could drive up your utility bills, start a fire or even cause a brownout. Driverless cars could be remotely ordered to kill you — no thanks! I laugh at the Iranian nuclear scientists who set back their nation’s top-secret research program for years because their desire to cybercommute opened their system to the Stuxnet attack. Go to the office, lazybones!

The Internet of Things needs to be seriously rethought — and resisted.

As for your old-fashioned electronic devices — smartphones, tablets and laptops — it might time to start thinking like a New Yorker during the 1980s. Leave the door unlocked. Just don’t leave anything in your glove compartment, or on your hard drive, that you wouldn’t mind losing.

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Ted Rall, syndicated writer and the cartoonist for ANewDomain.net, is the author of the book “Snowden,” the biography of the NSA whistleblower.

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