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Culleton: Cybersecurity a problem for everyone

Cybersecurity is a problem for all of us. The internet has made possible the theft of both information and ultimately cash money both from individuals and organizations.

Thefts like Wikileaks and the hacking of the Democratic National Committee make the news shows. But small-scale theft or attempted theft can and does occur right here at home. It has happened to family members. It happened to me more than a decade ago, and I am in the computing business.

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Way back when I needed a certain computer-related book. I looked up the book. I called the publisher and I ordered it. I gave them my credit card number. They entered my data into a computer. That computer was wired to the Internet.

The information about hundreds and maybe thousands of customers of the publisher was extracted — including my information. My first knowledge of the theft was via a call from the credit union I used and who had issued my credit card. I didn't lose any money thanks to quick action by the publisher and the credit union. I was issued a substitute credit card.

More recently, the desk clerk at a business I frequent told me that her mail had been stolen from her mailbox. She and her spouse had to spend time establishing new bank accounts and credit/debit cards on the assumption that bank statements, etc. might have been stolen.

Even more recently two relatives in different households actually had their identities stolen, including in one case the Social Security number of the victim. One had the special insurance protecting the policy holder against financial loss, the other did not. Even with no immediate financial loss such incidents are unnerving and troublesome. The only good news is the usually timely and successful action taken by the financial institutions involved.

If you are one of the 95 percent or so citizens in possession of of home or office computers using Microsoft Windows(R) as the operating system you are part of the pool of prime targets for hacking.

Willie Sutton was once asked why he robbed banks. He replied, "Because that is where they keep the money." Why do the bad guys tend to attack computer systems using that most popular operating system? Because that is the richest field in which to steal personal information or just wreak havoc, that's why. I have equipped my spouse's laptop with one flavor of Linux and my own two desktops with another, more suitable for my programming ventures.

Once you get through the bother of installing Linux it is no harder to use than the more popular flavor, just different. Most versions of Linux are free, but businesses tend to use one of the versions that offer customer support (for money of course). Another free package is called Libre Office, which offers essentially the same features as Microsoft Office and uses the same file formats. Even those not willing to cross over to Linux may want to consider Libre Office. Keeping it up to date is less bother (no serial numbers) and of course it is free.

The county in particular should consider Libre Office for schools and offices, sort of like buying generic drugs, which we all do now. I understand why some are afraid to use open source (free) software. After 48 years in the computing field and in today's scary environment I am afraid to try anything else.

It is not harder to use than the more popular flavor, just a bit different.

The smarter agencies in the federal government maintain two computer networks, one for dealing with the outside world and another not attached to the internet where the sensitive data is kept and accessed. All agencies should do the same. There is no excuse for my employee information in the Office of Personnel Management being hacked, but it was. The only sure way to keep remote hackers from invading our databases is maintaining them off line.

It makes computer budgets more expensive and operations less convenient, but is necessary. Some day all the bureaucrats will wake up to that uncomfortable fact.

John Culleton writes from Eldersburg. His column appears every second Tuesday. Email him at cct@wexfordpress.com.

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