In our opinion: The lesson of 2013 - we are all vulnerable to online problems

Published: Thursday, Dec. 26 2013 4:18 p.m. MST

There also are reasons to expect government to help watch over private citizens’ online exposure. That is certainly true for the government’s own abuse of private records for ostensible security reasons.

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In an era of exponential growth in technology, the year 2013 stands out as a point in time in which we are harshly reminded that the systems people rely on for commerce and communication are anything but infallible. A series of events this year certainly offers a lesson about vulnerability in the age of the Internet.

The latest comes in news of a data breach that could affect as many as 40 million Americans who made purchases with credit cards associated with the giant retailer Target. Before that, the nation witnessed the embarrassing imperfections of the system set up to enroll people under the Affordable Care Act. And there are the cases of computer programs run amok on Wall Street, bringing momentary chaos to securities markets.

Add revelations about the government’s gathering of data for surveillance purposes and a common theme emerges. The technology that makes so many things easier is also making one thing harder – going to sleep at night knowing private transactions are secure from those who would snoop, steal or snag by some measure of ineptitude.

The situation may not demand any particular call to action other than what people might naturally do when they recognize they are afflicted by a false sense of security. In the case of the Target credit card breach, experts are advising those affected to closely monitor their financial records and credit ratings for signs of a problem. Given the bigger picture, such vigilance should probably be automatic and continuous for all of us.

There also are reasons to expect government to help watch over private citizens’ online exposure. That is certainly true for the government’s own abuse of private records for ostensible security reasons.

In the commercial sector, there have been regulatory and legislative efforts to require companies engaged in online commerce to achieve some level of guarantee over the safety of electronic transactions. In addition, there are judicial options available to see to it that retailers and others are more careful with private data. For instance, in the Target case, the state of Massachusetts has launched an investigation into whether the breach constitutes a violation of consumer protection laws.

Such efforts are worth pursuing given what the nation has seen in recent months. And the marketplace itself should move faster toward developing more secure systems. Specifically, it would be good to see an expedited phasing out of systems that rely on the magnetic strips attached to credit cards in favor of more secure microchips, which are now the norm in Europe and elsewhere.

There is no going back from the world we have created, so there is reason to make sure that, going forward, more care is taken and some limits imposed. The best course is to act with recognition of the risk we may be exposed to at any time, with any keystroke, touch of a tablet or swipe of a card.

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