Harley Hahn's
Internet Insecurity


Introduction...

Coming of Age

 

"You just want material", she said. "I'll never see you again."

It worried her. She was a writer, as I was, and she knew the writer's mind. And maybe she was right.

We were sitting at a booth in Cantor's, a 24-hour deli in the Fairfax district of Los Angeles. The hour was late — after 4 AM — and Diana and I had been eating large bowls of chicken soup. I had told her I was just starting to work on a new book (this one). Every now and then I would stop and take notes, writing down something she said. (When I am working on a book, everything — and everybody — is fair game.)

I was thinking mightily about the Internet: about privacy, security and safety. I realized that, although the book would have to get into technical details, I would have to do a lot more than document procedures. I would have to hunt down, learn to understand, and then come to terms with the bewilderment all of us feel about modern life. Yes, Man can be the most rational of creatures, but he can also be childish, arbitrary and scared of dark places.

So what scared Diana? Certainly not what scares many of us. I had met her earlier that night at the Hollywood Bowl, and she was completely comfortable with talking to me, driving around the city and sitting up all night with a stranger.

I thought of how brave and sensible Diana was, but I also saw that she had real fears. She was afraid of having her feelings hurt. She was afraid of not being special. She was afraid that someone might invade her privacy, stir up her emotions, and leave her feeling violated.

Now I was getting somewhere. I realized that what drives and motivates us — on and off the Internet — has a lot more to do with human nature than technology.

What drives and motivates us has a lot more to do with human nature than technology.

I could never understand why so many people are content to flounder around, using a global network they can't comprehend and a computer system they will never master. Don't these people feel a sense of bewilderment? Doesn't it bother them that they have so little understanding of how anything works? And yet, it is these exact people who, more often than not, feel the most safe on the Net. They don't worry. They just send email, chat with their friends, look at Web pages, and enjoy themselves.

Most of the people I know who worry are the ones who know what they are doing. They obsess over possible, but highly unlikely, esoteric privacy violations. They worry that some day, a hacker might sneak up a shared network cable, insinuate his way into their computer, and perform some vague but hideous exorcism on their carefully tuned system.

Unlike their duller, less technical counterparts, the smart people see their computers as extensions of themselves. And, like all people with enough foresight to see danger, they will go to extremes to protect themselves against their enemies, both real and imaginary.

The plain truth is that much of what people fear on the Net is just not real. Never has been and never will be. And yet, there are real concerns we do need to understand. How do we separate the real from the imaginary, the serious from the frivolous, the bothersome from the dangerous?

That is what we will explore in this book, you and I. Along the way, we will investigate human nature, looking for the timeless characteristics that define humanness and how they relate to the Internet.

But where to start? For me, it started with a concert on a Friday evening in the warm Santa Barbara autumn. A friend and I had gone to the Santa Barbara Bowl to see Brian Wilson in concert, and that led me, two days later to Los Angeles, to Diana the writer, to a late-night search around the city for the only 24-hour newsstand, so we could buy a copy of a newspaper that had just printed one of Diana's articles, and, finally, to a long conversation at Cantor's, during which Diana and I ate soup, shared, argued, emoted and, as one writer to another, talked and talked and talked.

And that, as you will see, is what led me to start to understand what the Internet was doing to us, how it was affecting our judgment, and how it resonated with our fears and concerns: feelings that originate deep within us, mature in the outside world, and flourish in a new electronic environment very few of us understand.

"Until you know someone enough to trust
him, you can be anyone you want to be."

     — Diana

I had been looking for someone to go with me to the Brian Wilson concert, and finally, I had asked a friend. It was Friday night, and we walked quickly up the sloping entrance to the bowl. We were late, and by the time we found our seats, the overture had started. Brian Wilson was the genius behind the Beach Boys, and as we entered, the Santa Barbara Symphony was playing a 17-minute overture, a tapestry of old Beach Boys melodies.

As the overture ended, the orchestra left and Wilson came on with his 10-piece band. The music was exquisite, mostly classic Beach Boys songs, along with Wilson's all-time favorite rock song "Be My Baby". But the highlight — what every Brian Wilson fan had come to see — came after the intermission: Pet Sounds.

Pet Sounds was an album that Wilson had created thirty-four years earlier, in 1966, when he was 24 years old. Tonight, Wilson, his band, and members of the orchestra played and sung the album in its entirely. Within the world of pop music, it's difficult to overvalue the influence of Pet Sounds. It was the first real concept album — the one that inspired Paul McCartney to create Sergeant Pepper's — a work that has been praised over the years by many professional musicians and has been called the best pop album of all time.

Why was Pet Sounds so important? It took me awhile to get it.

I must admit that, on that warm Friday autumn night, I wasn't there to hear the most influential pop album of all time. I was there to listen to old Beach Boys songs; to stand and dance and sing "Help Me Rhonda" with several thousand other baby boomers who knew, deep in their hearts, that it was other people, not them, who would one day grow old and die.

On Sunday, I drove by myself to Los Angeles, to the Hollywood Bowl, to hear the concert once again. That is where I met Diana — she and a friend were sitting next to me — and after the concert, I stayed up all night with her, talking and thinking.

Over the next two days, I listened to Pet Sounds, over and over, and finally — I got it. It wasn't only the music, rich and lush with seductive chord changes and California sun-filled harmonies. It was the words, the meaning behind the songs and the album as a whole. Pet Sounds — I finally realized — was a statement about Coming of Age.

The songs describe a young man on the threshold of making the transition beyond adolescence. It is a time of dreams. The young man is about to enter the first stage of adulthood, a time of realism, disappointment, and difficulties. Right now, his biggest problems have to do with love, girls and fun, but soon he will be leaving the Age of Innocence and entering the Age of Responsibility.

I thought about this, and I thought about my own life, and I thought about the Internet, and I realized why all this was so important. The Internet has a massive influence on human affairs, an influence that has expanded and changed significantly in the last few years.

When a technology is new, it is first used by the experimenters: people who have the technical know-how and the motivation to adopt and struggle with a new environment. However, by the time a technology matures, the once formidable system has become easy to use and, hence, accessible to less technical people. Once this happens, the creative floodgates open and we see a flourishing of activity that, in retrospect, we call a Golden Age. Thus, we have the Golden Age of Radio, the Golden Age of Television, the Golden Age of Comic Books, the Golden Age of Science Fiction, and so on.

What characterizes a Golden Age? It is more than creative activity. In a Golden Age, the technology is still rather new, and the people who participate are still innocent. Compare, for example, TV shows of the 60s ("Leave it to Beaver") to shows of the 90s ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer").

Eventually, however, the outside world intrudes upon the new environment. Once this happens, the Golden Age is overtaken by the "real world" and things change drastically. In particular, people find that life is not as simple as it used to be. There are more sharks in the water, and simply participating calls for more caution, knowledge and judgment. People start to get hurt.

The Golden Age of the Internet is over. It ended when the overriding purpose of the Net ceased to be simple creativity and sharing.

True, there is more creativity and sharing on the Net than ever before, but there is also advertising, commerce, pornography, politics, misinformation, broken relationships, and many, many mixed-up malevolent individuals.

The original motivation to create the Internet was as an aid to the academic and research community. Today, the Net has no particular focus. Everyone and anyone can and does use the Net. In fact, it is more common to find people on the Net participating in master/slave bondage-oriented relationships than it is to find astronomers discussing the latest information from the Hubble Telescope.

The Internet is still a wonderful invention — I maintain, the most important invention in the history of mankind — but in recent years, its character has broadened to include everyone and everything. This brings into play all the weaknesses, traps, temptations and evils of humanity.

Moreover, because the Net harnesses so much raw power, it acts as an amplifier, increasing the effect of the good, the bad and the indifferent. As a result, the Internet has become too much for any individual, any group, or any government to handle on its own.

The Internet acts as an amplifier, increasing the effect of the good, the bad and the indifferent.

During the Golden Age, it was possible to approach the Net blindly, and trust to the native goodness of other people (and of the Net itself). This is not so anymore, and will never be so again. The Golden Age is gone and, along with it, the short-lived Age of Innocence.

There is more good on the Net than ever before, and its usefulness and importance increases daily, so, yes, you should know how to use the Net and use it well. And you should encourage your children to embrace the Net.

However, you must — we all must — recognize that by allowing the world, with all its imperfections and temptations, to connect to the Net, we have opened a Pandora's Box: one that is more powerful than we understand, and one that is far beyond our capacity to manage. No one, no group, no government can control the Net, or even make sense out of it.

As surely as you are reading this, the Internet is humanity's staircase to the next level of human evolution. However, staircases run both ways and, more than anything we have ever created, the Net demands our respect and our attention. As human beings, we have no choice. The box has been opened and there is no turning back. As individuals, we must develop the values, morals, customs, and strength of character necessary to survive and to thrive.

Perhaps you think you can ignore the Net. Just don't use it, or use it sparingly, you might think, and everything will be okay. That sounds good, but what do you do when you find out your boyfriend is sending long email messages to other women, some of whom are married? What does it mean when you find your kids spending hours talking to people they will never meet in person? How do you know what to think when you hear of mysterious computer viruses that, supposedly, can attack your computer and wipe out your entire collection of recipes or all your genealogy research?

The Internet has passed through the first two stages: the Age of Experimentation and the Age of Innocence. We are now in a state of transition, preparing to enter the Age of Responsibility. Although the Internet has much more to offer than ever before, pitfalls abound, and before much time passes, we are all going to have to change.

You and I are going to be forced to examine who we are, what we want from life, what we have to offer, and how we choose to relate to other people and the world. As we teach ourselves the technical nuances of using our computers and the Net, we are going to have to spend more and more time thinking about values, morals, customs, and strength of character.

That is what you and I are going to do, together, in this book. We are going to examine the most important aspects of using the Net and relate them to our lives and to the security, safety and privacy that is crucial to our well-being. I will show you what is real, what is not real, and how to tell the difference. We will discuss what is important — on and off the Net — and how to stop, look and listen in a way that protects you and your family, while still allowing you to use the Net for all its wonder, beauty and enrichment.

In other words, I am going to show you how to dance with the devil and not be hurt.

I had to prove that I could make it alone
But that's not me,
I wanted to show how independent I'd grown now
But that's not me...

     — Brian Wilson & Tony Asher
         ("That's Not Me", from Pet Sounds)