In part 1 of this series we talked about finding the right computer system and decried the lack of availability of such systems. In part 2 we talked about how to get connected with friends and family when access to a computer system is impossible or impractical. So in this part we’ll start from the assumption that the senior in question – most likely yourself, dear reader – already has a computer system that is more or less usable and are ready to do something fun and useful with it. How do you get from senior citizen to senior netizen, from lost in space to hacker space without being pwned in the process. Actually it’s easier than you think. In fact you probably already know a whole lot more than you realize.
First off let’s define some of this confusing cyberspeak. I mentioned being “pwned” so let’s start there:
In hacker jargon, pwn means to compromise or control, specifically another computer, web site, gateway device, or application.
Why would someone want to do that? As it turns out that’s big business these days. You’ve probably heard about botnets. Here’s what that means.
Botnet is a jargon term for a collection of software robots, or bots, that run autonomously and automatically. Typically botnets are operated by criminal entities.
And what do those criminal entities do with botnets? Mostly they sell bandwidth and compute resources – from the pwned PCs (bots) – to spammers.
Spam is the abuse of electronic messaging systems (including most broadcast media, digital delivery systems) to send unsolicited bulk messages indiscriminately. The most widely recognized form of spam is e-mail spam.
Basically it breaks down like this: Your computer gets pwned and turned into a bot and becomes part of a botnet that is used to send spam like those “cheap viagra” emails that everybody receives.
Another thing you’ve probably heard about is phishing.
In the field of computer security, phishing is the criminally fraudulent process of attempting to acquire sensitive information such as usernames, passwords and credit card details by masquerading as a trustworthy entity in an electronic communication. Communications purporting to be from popular social web sites, auction sites, online payment processors or IT administrators are commonly used to lure the unsuspecting public.
Those are the two biggest threats on the internet. In fact they usually turn out to be a single threat. Here’s how that works: You get a phishing email that purports to be from your bank. Instead of sending you to your bank’s web site it links you to a malicious site that transfers malware to your computer, turning it into a bot.
Malware, short for malicious software, is software designed to infiltrate or damage a computer system without the owner’s informed consent. The term “computer virus” is sometimes used as a catch-all phrase to include all types of malware, including true viruses.
I’m guessing that right about now you are thinking “this sounds really complicated”. While plenty of companies,both legitimate and fraudulent, would like you to believe that, it’s actually not. In truth phishing and spreading malware is nothing more than con games being run in this new environment, the internet. The point being, it’s up to you to avoid being a mark. And this mainly requires a change in the way you think about communication over the internet.
I’ve written about this issue before in a post called the Technology generation gap.
There have been grifters and scam artists around since time immemorial, but it’s only been with the advent of the ubiquitously anonymous internet that the scams, schemes and spam have become pervasive. Back in the day, a grifter’s work was strictly up close and personal as opposed to nowadays when you can hit millions of marks with a single shot. Kind of like a knife fight versus carpet bombing.
You have to understand is that email is not like actual physical mail. It’s easy to get caught up in the abstraction of sending and receiving electronic mail. It appears to work exactly the same as sending or receiving correspondence. Only much faster. Unfortunately there are some dramatic differences between how mail and email work, and these differences make email significantly less private and reliable than mail. When you send a letter via mail it is picked up from a postal drop, transported through a series of post offices where it is postmarked and finally delivered to the intended recipient. Note that the same physical letter that was sent is received and the content of the letter often validates the identity of the sender. Junk mail is also easily identifiable as such. With email it works much differently. When an email message is sent, a copy is sent to and stored on the outgoing email server owned by the sender’s email provider. Then a copy of the message is broadcast over the internet and received, after any number of intermediate stops along the way, by the incoming email server owned by the recipient’s email provider. From there the recipient gets a copy of the email message. Note that there are at least 5 copies of the message created and stored on at least 5 different computers for that one email message. And the sender and recipient only have control over their respective copies. Also because email is by definition computer generated the content cannot be used to validate the sender’s identity. In other words, anyone can type “Dear Grama, … Love, Katey“, but it doesn’t make them Katey. Also, remember those postmarks on letters? They show you where the letter originated from. While email contains a record of where it was sent from, including all intermediate stops along the way, you can’t trust the voracity of this record. It can easily be “spoofed” to appear to be from anywhere the sender wishes. Furthermore since the bulk of the “daisy chain” of email message copies is not controlled by the sender or receiver it can be altered, corrupted or otherwise misused anywhere along the line and no one will be the wiser.
The next thing to understand is that the internet is designed to be anonymous. Just like the famous New Yorker cartoon: “On the internet nobody knows you’re a dog“. Unlike real life where we tend to trust people until they are proven to be untrustworthy, on the internet there are no people, as in actual living human beings, to trust. Actual humans are not directly responsible for a fair portion of internet traffic. Much of the content on the web is generated by bots or other automated processes. For us actual human internet users this requires a complete reversal of the way we’ve always thought about communication. In other words, we must assume that anything we get from the internet is suspect until proven otherwise. Guilty until proven innocent. This is the hardest thing for most of us who grew up before the information age to do. But it’s critical to understanding how the internet works.
The bottom line is this: Trust no one and don’t be an idiot. If it sounds too good to be true, it is. I mean seriously, when you see a scary message pop up on your screen like “your computer is infected with a terrible virus” ask yourself “why would anyone care about my computer?” The answer is obvious, and unless you enjoy being a sucker you’ll treat it the same way you would the street corner three-card-monty dealer. Move on. Nothing interesting here.
Now hold on there, bucko. It has to be more complicated than that. What about all that anti-virus stuff and anti-phishing services? What about Windows update? Well you got me there. The sad fact is that Microsoft Windows spawned a whole industry of snake oil products [Whoa! I knew I felt a conspiracy theory coming on!] that are now required for Windows users. But at least now the Microsoft serpents have eaten the other serpents [Woo Hoo! A vague biblical reference too!] with the introduction of Microsoft’s own anti-malware tools for free. So at least you won’t have to pony up annual subscriptions. Yet. So if you are running a Windows computer, threaten to cut the person who foisted it on you out of your will until they set this up for you. If you have a Mac or Linux computer just send the clever and generous person who gave you such good advice a digital smooch. But just remember, regardless of how much anti-malware stuff you have on your computer, or how up to date you are with all of those “security patches” you are still at risk if you act like an idiot. By contrast you could be running an old unpatched, unprotected Windows 2000 box and be just fine as long as you refuse to be a mark for online grifters.
So that’s the secret. Like most things in life, the easiest solution is the best.