According to Mat Honan, we all have a secret than can ruin our lives.
The secret Honan has in mind? Your passwords—or, most likely, the password—that you use almost every time you transact business online, which, for most of us, is every day.
In the August 2012 issue of Wired magazine, Honan told the story of how two hackers “destroyed [his] entire digital life in the span of an hour.” Within that hour, they “wipe[d] every one of [his] devices . . . deleting all [his] messages and documents and every picture [he had] ever taken of [his] 18-month-old daughter.”
As the saying goes, “once bitten, twice shy.” Since his experience, Honan has “devoted [himself] to researching the world of online security,” and what he has found is, in his words, “terrifying.” As he tells us, “with two minutes and $4 to spend at a sketchy foreign website, I could report back with your credit card, phone, and Social Security numbers and your home address.”
Yet even if we take the time to create strong and unique passwords for every sensitive site we visit, the password is only as good as the security system the banks and other online businesses set up.
That’s what happened to Honan. He was the victim of what is called “social engineering” or a “social hack.” Armed with his email address and the last four digits of his credit card number—that’s right: the numbers on the receipts you casually throw away—his tormentors were able to con Apple into resetting his password.
While the particular weaknesses that Honan’s attackers exploited have been fixed, other vulnerabilities—such as security questions like “What was your first car?” and “Where were you on January 1, 2000?”—remain the stuff of “security theater,” not actual security.
In the age of social media, hackers have no need of “sketchy foreign websites.” We go so far as to volunteer the answers on sites like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
That’s why security experts strongly advise the use of nonsensical answers such as “lemon meringue pie” to questions such as “Where did you go to high school?” The problem is that nonsensical answers are harder to remember than the real answer and writing them down is high on their “don’t” lists.
That leads Honan to conclude that “the age of the password has come to an end.” The problem is that “no one has figured out what will take its place.” Given our web-centric economy and culture, that is more than a bit disturbing.
Where Honan goes wrong is in his failure to discriminate when discussing vulnerability. Not everyone is equally insecure to the foibles of security questions. In fact, the social media-induced vulnerability he describes is in large measure a generational, which is to say, cultural, issue. For those of us raised in a more reticent time, today’s “over-sharing” and the vulnerabilities it creates seem quite mad.
When I was growing up, my mother and grandmother didn’t hesitate to rebuke us for being “presentado,” literally, “presented.” It was the Puerto Rican epithet directed at people, especially children, who drew needless attention to themselves. Needless to say, this aversion to making a spectacle of yourself wasn’t limited to Puerto Rican parents. Virtually all of my friends were raised in a similar fashion.
There was a sense that whatever attention people might pay to you should be the result of your actions and accomplishments, and not self-promotion. And we were definitely raised to believe that there was a clear, albeit unstated, distinction between the matters we discussed in private with our families and other intimates and those we discussed with mere acquaintances and strangers.
At the same time, the seeds of our anything-but-reticent age were clearly present. The transition, described by James Davison Hunter in The Death of Character, from thinking of ourselves in terms of character (i.e., what we did) to thinking of ourselves of terms of personality, that is, who we are or at least how we perceive ourselves to be, had taken place long before we were born.
This transition, along with the individualism that is every American’s cultural birthright, paved the way for the exaltation of “authenticity” without which today’s over-sharing would not be possible.
Looking back, our reticence was probably more vestigial than virtuous. Not only could it not be sustained, but when it gave way, the line between the private and the public would be obliterated, not blurred. In her novel What the Dead Know, Laura Lippman describes two characters as “best friends who told each other nothing of significance.” Not coincidentally, both characters came of age in the 1950s. Today, something akin to the obverse characterizes social media such as Facebook: People who are, in many ways, strangers to one another tell each other a great deal about themselves.
Anyone who has ever used Facebook is aware of the way that people literally document their every action: what they do, where they are, and what they are thinking at the time. Warnings that what we post on Facebook and other social media can and will be used against us, by both current and prospective employers, are standard Internet fare.
The complete and total triumph of what Rochelle Gurstein dubbed the “party of exposure” rendered the idea of voluntary reticence—never mind the enforced kind—quaint. This was already the case when her book The Repeal of Reticence was published in 1997. Back then, the kind of over-sharing we increasingly take for granted was the stuff of Jerry Springer and Maury Povich.
Today, we have to warn people against making “sex tapes,” telling them that they will almost certainly wind up online.
Facebook’s founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg took a lot of flak for saying that “the era of privacy” is over, but the evidence suggests that he understands his customers better than his customers (and critics) understand themselves. Which part of “people have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people” rings false to anyone on social media?
As Gurstein documented, the shift in what might be called the “cultural default” from reticence to exposure is a long time in the making. The kind of social leveling that made the idea that some things are in bad taste seem as quaint as reticence wasn’t accomplished overnight and was, as social scientists like to say, “overdetermined.”
Then there’s the job market: The message from “experts” (yes, those are scare quotes) is that we—like the celebrities who are more celebrated for what they do off-screen—need to “market” ourselves and establish our own “brands.” This requires drawing attention to ourselves and standing out, which many of us find unseemly.
This difference between his readers and those of us old enough to pay increasing, albeit distressing, attention to advertisements for AARP’s Medicare Supplement plan escapes Honan. Not everyone is comfortable with sharing more and different kinds of information with people they have never met. Not everyone has to dread what a current or prospective employer might turn up on Google or Facebook.
We all have secrets that can, if exposed, ruin our lives. But some of us know, as Gurstein put it, that some—in fact, a great many—things are better left unsaid.
Roberto Rivera is a fellow at the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview.
Sean Gallagher, “Born to be breached: the worst passwords are still the most common”
Rochelle Gurstein, The Repeal of Reticence
Mat Honan, “Kill the Password: Why a String of Characters Can’t Protect Us Anymore”
James Davison Hunter, The Death of Character
Laura Lippman, What the Dead Know
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