Skip to main content

Russia hack: Your data is not safe

By Douglas Rushkoff
updated 7:54 PM EDT, Wed August 6, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Douglas Rushkoff: News of Russia hacking makes us check our passwords, move on
  • That's not enough: If network compromised, we all are. We're in it together, must take steps
  • Keep good personal Internet hygiene, follow IT security rules in your business, he says
  • Rushkoff: Hackers use us to breach firewalls of companies we depend on -- thwart them

Editor's note: Douglas Rushkoff writes a regular column for CNN.com. He is a media theorist, the author of the book "Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now" and professor of media studies at CUNY/Queens. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Most people's first response on hearing that 1.2 billion usernames and passwords have been compromised by a group of Russian hackers? We check our own most important accounts for evidence of misuse, and change our passwords. If a week or two goes by with nothing out of the ordinary happening on our credit cards, we breathe a sigh of relief and go back to life as normal.

In short, if nothing happens to us, personally, then we really don't care.

But that's not how the Internet works. We're all in this thing together, and when the network is compromised, so too are we all.

1.2 billion passwords stolen

So what lessons should we take from the news that this cyberposse has managed to break into over 420,000 websites of companies large and small?

Douglas Rushkoff
Douglas Rushkoff

First off, your data is not safe -- certainly not in an online universe where it's supposed to be protected by consumer-created passwords and computer-illiterate merchants. Over the years, I have been laughed off more than one panel for suggesting that we won't begin to take digital education seriously until nine Chinese teenagers break into a major Wall Street bank and create such havoc that we're forced to reset the entire economy to yesterday at noon.

So it turns out to be a dozen Russian 20-somethings in a small city near Mongolia, but the achievement was equally spectacular and should provoke an equally widespread response.

Yes, the compromised 420,000 websites belonging to companies large and small need to be reconfigured, but so does our entire approach to information and its security.

You've been hacked! Here's what to do

In the most immediate and practical sense, we pedestrians have to accept the fact that we are utterly incapable of protecting ourselves on the information superhighway. We don't use good passwords, we use the same ones on multiple sites, we don't change them often enough, and we store them in files and e-mails and other places where they are not secure.

The easy cure is to use a password service such as Dashlane, KeePass or LastPass to create and manage your passwords for you. You can even share passwords securely with others, revoke access, and change passwords regularly without having to remember anything but your own master key.

Likewise, those of us working in businesses simply have to learn to surrender authority of our security to those IT people who keep telling us to do stuff that we ignore. We have to respect the firewalls, scan USB sticks before we stick them in our machines or printers, and not defeat the security protocols they've established for us. They are not the enemy.

It's akin to good collective hygiene. When you don't wash your hands, that's one thing. If you work in a restaurant, it's another. Now that we're all connected digitally, we are all working in the equivalent of a virtual cafeteria, spreading whatever we happen to pick up to everyone else.

Russian hack attack
Hacking is as simple as an online search
Target: Hackers also stole PIN data

That's the vulnerability these Russian kids exploited. They collected all these usernames and passwords through a botnet installed on our computers. That weird file you opened that didn't seem to have anything in it? Or that link you clicked on and the extra window that opened in your browser? That was you installing a piece of malware on your machine -- a tiny program that turned your laptop into part of this tiny hacker group's global supercomputer. Your processor, your contact list, and your access becomes theirs. From there, they just watch and collect.

Basic digital literacy is certainly the best option against these infiltrations. But the first and most important step in that education is to realize that there are people who know how this stuff works better than we do. The scary part of living in a networked world is that we're all responsible for our mutual well-being. But the great part is that there are many people out here willing to help us rise to that challenge.

As long as we see our interests as personal and individual, we will continue to be used as a giant battering ram on the firewalls of banks and other companies on whom we are depending. They can patch and update, but their processing power pales in comparison with that of a few hundred million home computers controlled by a malicious gang.

That bounty of 1.2 billion usernames and passwords likely isn't even the prize they're after; it's merely the platform from which they're going after something else. Until we members of a networked society learn to work together, we will continue to be used by those who put us together for themselves.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
updated 10:23 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
updated 10:55 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT