Privacy, security, truth vulnerable — but here’s an answer

You leave your home, get in your car and drive off to shop, go to the bank and say hello to a friend.

As usual, in the rear view mirror, you see a car following you.  It’s not the same car every day, but one’s always there.  The vehicle never comes close, and the driver never tries to talk with you.  But, when you stop, he or she stops, always taking notes.  It’s a bit unnerving.

That really doesn’t happen, at least that you’re aware of.  Not in the world you can see.  But in the invisible world, it is happening all the time.  You are being followed, and some people know almost everything about you.

What you read, what you write and what you buy, even your political views, can be accessed by corporate and political data collectors or lone hackers.

The explosion of the Internet to allow for massive, personal communication and greater commerce has transformed the world.  Believing in the anonymity provided by huge numbers using social media, many have abandoned their privacy.  Undisciplined use of social media destroys privacy.

While this cannot be undone, it can be slowed. The best way to protect privacy and prevent misuse of the Internet is for individuals to actively protect as much of their privacy as they would like to keep.

A single tool can increase privacy and also improve security and drastically reduce “fake news.”  Paper.

Privacy begins with communication.  A snail-mail letter goes only to the intended recipient not as a “Reply to All” message.  Because it takes more effort than email or texting, we can think more carefully as we write.  Usually, nobody, except law enforcement, can know what’s in the envelope.

Right now, many people blindly trust billing.  Instead of refusing printed receipts, we should ask for them and review monthly statements from banks and credit card companies.  Look at the Central Maine Power billing investigation, though it only occurred when bills skyrocketed.

Along the same lines, people would do well to obtain and keep bills, statements and tax returns.  They are hard-copy records of their financial lives, not entirely dependent on data stored on remote computers and accessible only through the Internet.

The ‘cloud” in which one can store personal data on a distant computer is a useful idea, but can anyone say with absolute certainty that their information is secure from prying eyes or tampering?  At least, we should print out the most essential records.

Some people remember paper’s value.  While checks are giving way to electronic wallets and transfers, their rate of decline has markedly slowed.

Using checks could even affect retail prices.  Merchants don’t pay for accepting checks, but their credit card charges involve bank fees.  If their costs are lower, some merchants might share the savings.

How vulnerable is your electric service?  The federal government has reported that Russian hackers have already been able to penetrate some parts of the electric grid.  They could greatly disrupt the economy if they closed down a major part of it.

The electric transmission system was operated for decades using printed manuals.  While it did not work as well as it does today, it still could be operated by people flipping switches.  The problem is that operating manuals have been discarded. Bring back the paper manuals and test operations by the book once a year.

But there’s an even bigger role for paper.  Your vote, even if counted electronically, should be cast on a hand-marked paper ballot. If the Russians undermined electronic tabulation, printed ballots that could be counted manually as a backup.

By the way, when outsiders try to influence an election by false reports spread over social media, there’s even a paper solution for that.  The newspaper you may now be holding or the verifiable electronic version of it cannot be used by a hacker in China or Russia to lead voters astray.

Russian tampering in the 2016 elections depended mainly on use of the social media, which were never intended to be reliable news sources.  Newspaper reports, subject to review by editors, and clearly identified opinion, like this column, can block freelancing by foreigners. Fact-checking, done by some papers to rebut fake news, also helps.

The electronic age is like the rising tide.  It cannot and should not be stopped.  But it is not a replacement for old-fashioned paper.

The hard copy in our own possession is the best way to maintain privacy, promote security and keep informed.   That’s worth some extra effort on our part.

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.