Danger of doing business in cyberspace


Bankers in Arkansas, state chartered or national, aren’t going to like this column. Nor will utility companies, retailers — any business that conducts business in cyberspace, which includes pretty much the state and nation and much of the world. A huge majority of their presidents, managers and clerks will dismiss me as an old fogey, behind-the-times, a crank; they will sniff, or force a smile, and gently insist that I just don’t understand computer commerce, don’t comprehend how safe and secure are their systems.

They are quite correct, to the extent that I don’t understand computers. In the short span of days since replacing my primary instrument, my desktop, I have gone through two “geeks” — the one who sold me the model that has taken Old Blue’s place, and a second fellow I called in when nothing seemed to work as the first one demonstrate. Then, in desperation, I drove to the bookstore last weekend and purchased “Windows 8.1 for Dummies.” I’m having trouble understanding it. (If I was a little less the dummy I’d call in one of the grandgirls and have her walk me through it). Like so many of you I have only a surface knowledge of a piece of technology that I use daily yet don’t really understand. Rather like my car. Keep it gassed, change the oil, turn it on and expect it to work, and when something goes wrong call somebody who knows to do more than raise the hood and pretend.

As are yours my bank, the electric and gas companies, my city water and sewer department, my credit card carriers — all of them are enticing me, us, to enroll in one or another electronic payment program. Banks using the Internet by having your earnings deposited electronically. And while you’re at it make your house and car and credit card payments, buy holiday gifts and books and clothes, everything, using the Internet. Simply enter your credit card number, and the security code, in the space provided and in a few days that blouse or best-seller or CD will arrive at your door.

Of course it’s more efficient. E-commerce means less postage, less paperwork and fewer personnel, all of which goes to the bottom line. I understand. Oh – and it’s better for the environment; imagine all the trees spared, all the landfill space saved. No argument here to any of that.

But — secure? Now you’ve got an argument.

Specific cases, locally, beginning with yours truly: that nightmarish episode a couple years back when some guy in the Midwest somehow got my credit card info and literally had a ball — limos, flowers, booze, food, more booze, hotels. It took weeks and, ultimately, an attorney to persuade the credit card company from demanding payment. Then there’s a close friend of mine, a retired federal agent, of all people, who one would think was savvy about cyber-crime. He clicked on an e-mail he shouldn’t have, a message that seemed as legitimate as it could be, and within an hour his bank account was empty.

You will recall cyber-fraud on a much larger scale, just as last year’s Christmas shopping season began in earnest, when a major department store chain (one of several, actually, though the largest) with multiple locations in Arkansas disclosed that as many as 40 million of its customers’ personal financial data had been compromised. The hackers got it all: names, card numbers, security codes, expiration dates. The loss to direct theft eventually may pale against the cost of re-issued cards, reconfigured firewalls and compensation to bruised customers.

So, earlier this week, up pops on our computer screens (where else?) word that “a flaw has been discovered in one of the Internet’s key security methods, potentially forcing a wide swath of websites to make changes to protect the security of consumers.” Continues the New York Times: “Researchers were still looking at the impact on consumers but warned it could be significant. Users’ most sensitive information — passwords, stored files, bank details, even Social Security numbers — could be vulnerable because of the flaw.”

A prediction: the “flaw” will not be the last discovered, certainly not by the individuals who, with felonious intent, make it their business to discover flaws. They are at work as I write, as you read, and quite possibly are in our computers already. Which is why, with no attempt to play the curmudgeon, I decline to do my banking “the easy way.” My refusal is not, cannot be, absolute; I have clients who will remit only by electronic funds transfer, and the number surely will grow. So, I assume, will the attendant risk.

Too, I love the convenience of book-buying with a click of the mouse. It’s the rat lurking somewhere in cyber-space that I detest, and it seems there’s comparatively little you and I can do to avoid him, them, for the long term.

Steve Barnes is a native of Pine Bluff and the host of Arkansas Week on AETN.