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August 16, 2004

The New Security

This morning I sent out an invoice to one of my customers - an Adobe PDF file. Since GMail wasn't working, a periodic annoyance, I used my old Eudora client. As the mail went out, I noticed that there was a lack of an outbound virus scan. Usually when I send out a large document, it takes several extra seconds as Norton AV checks to make sure I'm not poisoning my email recipient unintentionally. This time, the little window didn't pop up.

Is Norton turned off? Yes, but only for outbound mail. Now I remember. When my buddy made his debut as a bassist in a reggae band, I spammed several hundred people on his behalf. In order to accomplish that, I turned off the outbound scanner.

It has been about 20 years since I first started using anti-virus software. I was getting McAfee updates even before Mitnick's famous worm. Back in those days, the threat level was nowhere near as consistent as it is today. Viruses are much more sophisticated, but ironically, they tend to be a lot less deadly. Back in those days, many virues just erased hard drives - they were just plain destructive. Today virus hackers seem to be more interested in owning fully functional machines. It's more like brainwashing than killing. We are a nation of potential Manchurian Candidates for today's crackers. I'm fairly safe however, but my safety has more to do with my own awareness than what any tools do for me. It was the fact that I know my outbound mail should be scanned rather that the fact that Norton does it for me, that adds to my security.

What I'm particularly pleased about this morning is that this consciousness is embedded in me after all these years. It doesn't hurt using it. I think about surgeons that I know, they'll drink themselves under a table, but they won't touch cigarettes. When you understand what the bad guys can do to you, it's not paranoia any longer, and after you've been practiced the safe regime for a long enough time, it starts to feel more like common sence than 'preparedness'.

I bring up this notion because I know that it's important for the future of our country, in the face of terrorism, that we all begin preparing ourselves. For what it's worth, I think people are getting accustomed to airport security. Whenever I have to go through a terminal, I know to wear my Oakleys. They come off in a second, they pop on in a second.

But I also know that, as a civil libertarian, I am particularly sensitive to this boiling frog effect on our important freedoms. The important thing to know is that once your security conciousness becomes elevated - when you begin to understand more about the threat against you, so does your understanding of the value of the tools in place (or not) to protect you. Again, it is the consciousness that is your strength, not the tool. Because as time goes forward, the nature of the threat will change in terms of its manifestations. Terrorists might want to blow up hard drives now, but next season they may want to brainwash us. The point is not to get overly dependent on one defensive tactic. We'll then have the options to trade-off. Maybe we want to spam for the sake of our friends, so we'll turn something off for a while. Maybe we'll want to encourage American students to study abroad, so we'll lift exit visa restrictions for a while.

In order for us to accomplish this kind of preparedness consciousness, we need to have some transparency from our government. Way back in the day, when I first loaded McAfee (or was it Norton?), I remember that the virus definitions all had names and descriptions. It gave me a great deal of comfort to know that any day I could look up the name of one of xhundred viruses and their variants to understand what kind of damage they might do and how likely it was that I would be infected by it. They still provide services like this today, even though I don't use them, I'm glad to know that they are there.

Twenty years ago, most Americans didn't even have PCs much less any knowledge of viruses or how to defend against them. But the fact that companies like McAffee and the Norton guys (who have been owned by several different entities) have been open about virus threat assessment and detection let a sizeable group of Americans operate securely. We've been able to internalize and maintain our preparedness consciousness because of that transparency. Now we would no more likely leave our machines unprotected than a cardiologist would smoke or an AIDS worker sleep around. But we know average Americans are not always so informed and disciplined.

When it comes to Homeland Security, some of us are going to know what's behind the big Orange Light, but most of us don't. Somebody somewhere is going to have to be our Surgeon General and start spreading some details and transparency. Even if she's going to be frank about masturbation like our old friend from Arkansas, Dr. Elders. Better safe and embarrassed than smug and in danger.

I'll vote for a president who does that.

Posted by mbowen at August 16, 2004 10:08 AM

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Home Land Security is a farce.

All that was needed was a cabinet level position, with a small office, to mandate sharing between the intellegence agencies in a legal manner.

That's it.

Once those walls were gone, the person in charge just had to mandate a time to see the first credible results. Give it one year than stand back and let it happen.

The office needed budget power.

That's it.

Believe me.

What's going on now with airport security is a farce and a sick joke. Home Land Security is not much better.

Bush was right to oppose it. He should have stuck to his guns.

Posted by: DarkStar at August 16, 2004 06:22 PM