Booming technology needs safeguards

Technology, with all its wonders, has brought us a raft of problems. At times, it seems we have more new technology than we can handle.

Its rapid introduction has brought efficiency and inefficiency, security and insecurity, and creativity and criminality.

The Internet is the genie the computer let out of the bottle, but it is not completely clear whether it is good or evil.

The revelations by Edward Snowden about the NSA’s collection of phone and Internet records continue to raise concerns, as does the NSA’s plans to develop a way of breaking through any protection to gain access to emails, messages and files.

News reports say that people are being flooded with unwanted emails and that telephone lines are being similarly inundated with unwanted calls intended to block some emergency services.

Journalists are being harassed by those receiving unfavorable coverage, who doctor online images to make it look like the reporters have been compromised.

Using the tools of identity theft, crooks have stolen more than a million IRS tax refunds, beating the taxpayers by filing phony tax returns. They simply create false W-2 forms.

Credit and debit card charges at Target, Nieman-Marcus and potentially many other stores, were hijacked, supposedly by a young man in Russia, exposing data about millions of people.

In the Obamacare fiasco, computer programming was not up to the task entrusted to it, placing one of the most significant new national programs in jeopardy.

In some places, the police can use electronically guided drones to watch anybody they choose without first getting a warrant.

In Maine, the Department of Health and Human Services has knowingly overpaid care providers millions of dollars, because it cannot get its electronic accounting system to work properly.

Individuals themselves have contributed to the problems by the extensive use of social media – like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn – leading to personal information being widely available for criminal exploitation.

Finally, international battles, fought on computers rather than on the ground, produce serious threats. Can Chinese hackers bring down the American electric utility grid?

The Internet was meant to be open to all, a system with no central control and no police. Little thought was given to the potential for abuse.

It has made many aspects of our lives easier, producing faster results. That promotes commerce and conversation and brings the world into homes in even remote areas. It is an aid to education.

Despite its problems, its advantages are so great that we cannot try to stop its momentum. But a case can be made that its relentless advance should not continue to provide uncontrolled access to hackers or to trample the privacy rights of its users.

There are some reasonable steps that can be taken to reduce the threats of technology. Many of them are in the hands of users themselves and do not require government action.

We should take seriously advice to use strong passwords and change them frequently. It’s annoying but as essential as locking away your valuable property.

In their haste to wring profit from the Internet, many companies do not pay enough attention to their own security. In the end, both the user and the merchant or bank must get tough and be continually watchful.

Target should have made business aware of the need for great security and customers understand the value of carefully reading their credit card statements.

And we need better backup systems for conducting our business and operating the power grid, something like we had before the coming of the technological revolution.

That could mean making and retaining paper records. It could also entail keeping mechanical systems available as backup instead of eliminating them when electronic solutions come along.

As for government, beyond the big questions created by the Snowden NSA revelations, cyber policing needs to be increasingly. We need an electronic cop on the beat.

In short, we need a visible police presence always on the lookout for those who would distort the technology marketplace for illegal purposes.

On the international level, it should be obvious countries will always spy on one another and that the Internet will help them. There’s not much that can be done about that.

But all countries’ economies are vulnerable to outside hackers. Russia and China are as easily hacked as the United States.

Illegal use of the Internet anywhere should be a crime everywhere. That’s exactly what the world did to sharply reduce piracy on the high seas, and it’s time to treat Internet crime in the ether the same way.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.