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January 16, 2005
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Dana Parsons:
Privacy Is History; You Can Bank on It
 
 
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As someone who used to get nervous when the waiter disappeared with my credit card, I'm beyond worrying over another story about a computer hacker. I'm resigned to the fact that someone at this very moment could be withdrawing money from my bank account and, possibly, watching me from inside my computer screen.

Privacy? Surely you jest.

Identity theft? Go ahead. See how you like being me.

This is exactly why I do not have a cell phone.

Our latest alleged cyber criminal apparently is a 21-year-old man who lived in an apartment in Santa Ana but is currently negotiating a plea bargain after being charged with breaking into the computer system of T-Mobile USA Inc. I know the company well, if only because the beautiful and talented Catherine Zeta-Jones does its TV advertising.

Luckily, she hasn't convinced me to buy any products, or Mr. Nicolas Jacobsen might have been amusing himself with my e-mails or voice messages. He's the fellow charged with hacking his way into some 400 T-Mobile customer accounts during 2003 before being arrested in October.

You want to live in an open society? Baby, there's none more open than this one.

Here's a dumb question: How is it that companies can market such incredibly innovative products and not make them impervious to the connivings of people still wet behind the ears?

In the past, we comforted ourselves by thinking criminals weren't too bright. Nowadays, however, they're obviously a whole lot smarter than we are. Worse, Mr. Jacobsen isn't even old enough to be a hardened criminal. He's not even of legal drinking age in some states.

Knowing that someone just past voting age could crack a major company's security code makes you wonder what a seasoned pro could do. You get the feeling your babysitter could hack into your home computer during those boring hours after the kids are in bed.

In the story about Jacobsen's case, The Times quoted an executive with an Internet security firm as saying, "Your security depends on trusting many companies to a much greater degree than ever before, and there's nothing you can do about it."

To which I could only add: Sleep tight.

Enough ranting. I don't want to sound like some old guy who has no idea what's happening in the world of technology — however true that may be.

What seems to be happening is that no one is surprised at our vulnerability.

It's as though computer technology is so cool that we're willing to expose ourselves to the electronic Peeping Toms of the modern age.

Is there any precedent for this? Buying newfangled TVs or radios or telephones in decades past exposed us only to theft. But today's advances — from cell phones and voice mail to Internet banking and buying and selling — subject you to total exposure and the mercy of the hacker.

And we accept it as the price of doing business in a technological age.

When I pay my bill, I cringe when giving my phone number to the phone company. Yet I know the number is available somewhere online.

And why fret about giving your driver's license number to a department store clerk who's standing in front of you when you give your credit card number, along with secret code, on the Internet to anonymous figures at travel companies or concert promoters?

The truth is, we know we're vulnerable and we play the odds.

Oh sure, you can play the crusty holdout who refuses to hop on the technological bandwagon as it chugs into the 21st century, but that puts you outside the mainstream.

Come on, get with the program: Expose yourself!

*


Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821 or at dana.parsons@latimes.com. An archive of his recent columns is at http://www.latimes.com/parsons .




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