Thursday, October 08, 2009

On-line and spiritual security

There's been widespread news coverage of the publicised theft of thousands of people's email account and banking details, and experts are still working out how. Many if not most of these thefts will be the result of people working with computers which are have no security software. However, so many people are ignorant or uncertain about how things work that they use their systems with low levels of confidence if not anxiety, and these become the target for exploitation.

Having persuaded my sister to buy a computer, and helped her to learn how to use it over the last nine months, I have become acutely aware of how difficult a learning curve it is for even an intelligent person to get to grips with the complexity of a modern computer interface. She is 75, still capable of travelling abroad on her own and negotiating London's public transport with great skill and efficiency. I have observed how long it has taken her to build her confidence as a basic user, and for entirely justifiable reasons, given the new terminology and the routines which have to be absorbed to do anything new. It's not half as easy as it should be to use XP or Vista. The new Sugar OS and user interface used for school children on the One Laptop per Child project is far superior for beginners. Anyway, that's no help for coping with present tribulations. I thought I'd share what I've just written to my sister.

Dear Junie,

This new item is worth a careful read

You know you're covered by computer software - OK?

But some of your contemporaries may not be conscientious about keeping up to date their anti-virus stuff, and they may surf a bit on the net and not realise the risk from not being covered properly. These are the ones that get an infection from the net and get their account details stolen and used to spam others. You don't pay for things on-line, so nobody could secretly copy your bank details anyway!

Simple rule of thumb - if anyone whose email address you recognise sends you an email telling you to check out a shopping or a money site, in the subject heading line delete it without reading. Same with anything pretending to come from a bank or a public utility company or the inland revenue. They simply don't operate via email. All these scams play on the feeling many people have these days that they are no longer in control of the lives, that they don't really know enough to understand what's going on. Also people feel not in control either because of foolish impersonal bureaucracy, and the stupid jobsworths they deal with. But worst of all to my mind is badly designed user interfaces on computers - web pages which are horribly confusing, far too detailed and demanding, that getting used to them is fraught with difficulties. So much so that it's a doddle to design spoof web pages of allegedly secure sites and use them to deceive people by playing on their anxieties or their base desires.

Any message that hints of anxiety, greed, vanity or lust will lure people to click rather than delete. It's even been known for emails trumpeting noble causes, fight famine, stop the war, end racism, sexism, protest against this or that to be used to direct people to malware download sites or which exploit your email addess without your authorisation.

You stay safe if your anti virus is up to date and you keep alert, asking about a new message - can I trust this? before opening it. There's no need to be anxious, but determined. That question keeps you in control. Just like having a chain on the front door. Yes, you're in control. If you don't feel in control. You can switch off, either the computer or the router or both, take advice and start again.

So many of those seeking to exploit people through the internet play upon their moral and spiritual vulnerabilities. Vigilance, discernment, patience and self control are essential for good security. When we're surfing the net on a computer, we may well be alone, and even alone in a roomful of people, because of the focussed nature of the activity. It makes solitaries of us, and this brings to the fore those very same inner elements that sustain monks and hermits in their spiritual struggle to stay sane, free and faithful to God. In place of security software, as believers, we have the resources of scripture, liturgy and millennia of spiritual wisdom to draw upon in self-defence. It's worth thinking about.

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