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Even Uncle Sam can be a victim

December 6, 2010

Recently some sort of hacker got into one of my old e-mail accounts and enjoyed a field day with my “address book,” my e-mail and, for all I know, any personal information I have given the e-mail service provider.
Fortunately, none of my contacts are foreign dignitaries and the messages in my inbox or in the “sent” mail folder never openly questioned the competence of Afghanistan’s president, nor likened Russian leaders to “Batman and Robin.” Otherwise, like the U.S. State Department and a passenger preparing to board a TSA monitored airplane, I might be broadcast to the world in near-naked, high-definition scanner images. Seeing U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the U.S. Government emperors standing out there without any diplomatic clothes is certainly horrific enough.
I started my Hotmail account pretty soon after the Internet became a tool accessible to the masses. And for probably 15 years, I used the account to communicate with friends and contacts. As spam mail increased to that old address, I gradually shifted away from using the Hotmail account in favor of a new address — a new address that I was a little more selective in sharing.
In these days of the Worldwide Web and growing threats of cyber-crime, you have to be careful about how you share your e-mail address. You have to be mindful of what personal information you make available for the world to see — and if you input any details about yourself on the Internet, you may as well expect that information to be shared with millions of people. Whether it is a photo on Facebook, or your “current” location on Foursquare, if you publish something on the Internet, your friends, family and criminals around the world will be privy to it.
In fact, based on what I learned from Catawba County Chief Information Officer Terry Bledsoe during a Newton-Conover Rotary Club meeting a while back, if I have personal information in a computer, and that computer has unsecured Internet access, I could easily fall prey to any tech-saavy criminal.
At this point in our planet’s Internet experience, it is pretty safe to assume that if you have put confidential information on a computer or on the Internet, you are opening yourself to a litany of problems. From issues as serious as identity theft, or as simple as a spammer hijacking your e-mail address to send thousands of junk messages to every contact in your e-mail address book, there are plenty of reasons to be wary of sharing intimate life details.
It seems like common sense, really: if you don’t want the world to have access to your personal information, keep it out of your computer andoff the Internet.
Somehow, the folks in the U.S. State Department either missed the warnings from technology experts like Bledsoe, or they lack the Internet common sense most of us began developing when we typed in “www” for the first time.
As a result, the U.S. government’s pants are down, and the picture the world is seeing isn’t pretty. Meanwhile, the people in charge are clamoring to avert any more damage caused by WikiLeaks and more than 250,000 diplomatic documents the website and its founder released to the world. Leaders are also trying to punish those responsible for image-damaging leaks of confidential information. It seems they’re chasing down the culprits with vengeance often reserved for the most heinous terrorists.
Ultimately, though, those elected and appointed leaders need look no further than the mirror when placing blame.
If diplomats aren’t delivering their opinions and insight via cables, wires or other communication conveyance that can fall prey to cyber-criminals, their dirty laundry doesn’t get aired for the world to see. You would think that a nation with a Central Intelligence Agency and access to the best and brightest technology and people would know the rules to keeping secrets, well ... secret. Isn’t rule No. 1 in “Spy vs. Spy,” don’t write anything down? What happened to the messages that exploded 10 seconds after they were read?
Meanwhile, if government officials truly abide by the policies of “open government,” and they understand that their negotiations on every matter are open to public scrutiny, maybe they will check their thoughts and comments to ensure their communication is worthy for the world to see. Otherwise, we have diplomats slinging around insults about the same world leaders we are hoping will cooperate with the nation as it combats terrorism, tries to fix the global economy and works to solve energy challenges.
Regardless of how disguised, encrypted or otherwise “protected” those types of communications may be, chances are, if somebody wants to steal this secret correspondence, they will. The sooner diplomats learn this important lesson, the better off our nation — and its foreign policy — will be.

Michael Willard is the publisher of and a columnist for The Observer News Enterprise. His column appears in the weekend edition.

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