MY COMPUTER

I sensed trouble when my personal computer, or PC as we scientific types call it, kept going blank, then started playing the Croatian national anthem. It switched to Eskimo porn, a test pattern and then locked in on “Esperanto — let’s give it a chance.”

I called on my ace PC guru, Timmy, once he was through with Little League practice. He poked around, seemingly to stop on Eskimo porn, and announced: “You’ve been hacked.” Imagine the thrill with the knowledge that from now on I could speed through school zones and demand the best table in a restaurant — with no reservations. This is because only important people, cities and the IRS get hacked. As our leader recently declared: “I am the chosen one!”

OK, it is a problem. But at least I don’t have to spend mornings killing out emails from Capital Bank, which has found problems with my account and needs me to send my account number and password. I would comply except that I don’t have an account with Capital Bank. Nor do I have one with Bank of America, which also had serious ID problems.

Then there is the Left Bank of the Bayou, where I have an account, except I covered that overdraft. An email from the Nigerian prince who has $20 million in a London bank that he will share with me if I help him withdraw it, and show my goodwill by sending him $1,000. I didn’t fall for that — at least not the third time.

Maybe I shouldn’t feel too special. In 2018, there were 1.244 million hacks exposing 446.52 million documents. Hey, that’s down from 2017 when there were 1.632 million hacks but exposed only 197.61 million documents.

Today the word “hacker” conjures up some 16-year-old in his Frankfurt basement messing with his computer to see who he can freak out. Or, more sinister, an untraceable gang in the Ukraine that is in the ransomware biz. More than 70 state and local governments have been hit with ransomware so far in 2019, including 23 municipal governments in Texas.

Lake City, Florida, paid nearly $500,000 following a ransomware attack. Riviera Beach, Florida, paid more than $600,000. In March, $400,000 was paid by Jackson County, Georgia. Johannesburg, South Africa, suffered blackouts when its electric utility grid went out after a ransomware attack. You don’t have to pay off, but it’s expensive. Baltimore was attacked in 2018, but paid no ransom. Recovery costs came to $18 million.

The U.S. government fears hackers will break into all sorts of federal agencies, shutting down air traffic, NOAA hurricane watches and electric grids. Their fears are real. Right now there are probably gremlins in the Kremlin busily decoding FBI reports, the identity of CIA spies and confidential tweets from the White House. (“Stormy, come back.”) And don’t worry about the results of the 2020 presidential election. Putin’s People already have the results — Trump by a landslide.

The one exception to hacking secrets the Trump administration approves of is the files, messages and secret info of the Democratic National Committee. That is not only permitted but encouraged — again. Don’t believe the 2020 Census results, either. For the upcoming headcount, the Census Bureau is relying heavily on computers for the tally. You might discover there are 22 people living in your house.

All of this hacking has coined a new term and a new profession: cybersecurity. It’s now a big biz, mainly because it doesn’t work. (An anti-hacking company in Atlanta was, uh, hacked.) Interestingly enough, the hotbed for cybersecurity is, obviously, San Antonio. Between the U.S. Army and UT-San Antonio, every expert in the field is flocking to the Alamo City.

The most common way to get into your computer is through email. Don’t open any suspicious messages, such as one from Ransomware ‘R Us. I can’t figure out who or how hackers got into my computer. I never open any mail I don’t recognize, although the hackers have become so sophisticated they can actually lift names from your address list and use them. So, if in doubt, don’t open any email.

Stop whining. What did you do, how did you communicate, before email? Just to be safe, demand letters, good ol’ ink and paper. Chances are you won’t be receiving any mail at all. One German intelligence agency has found a way to avoid being a target: For its most sensitive documents it uses a typewriter and carbon paper.

Lynn Ashby is a Houston-based columnist. Contact him at ashby2@comcast.net.

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