McGuire on Media

ASU computer hacking reinforces a valuable truth about digital and humans

As we were gathering for today’s Business and Future of Journalism class, one of the students fired off what he thought was a funny line: “This Digital thing isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, is it?”

The joke referred to the classroom problems created by a hacker who apparently compromised the secure Arizona State University computer network.

I took that as a signal that one of my signature rants was in order.

Once class began, I asked the student to explain his point. He must have thought I was a little slow, but he explained that you can’t completely trust this digital age of ours because “stuff like this happens.”

Other students chimed in using words like “vulnerability.” There was an almost palpable feeling of betrayal in the classroom and the perpetrator was the digital world we’ve created. It seemed a widespread sentiment that despite the preaching of professors like me, we’re going to trust the digital revolution at our own peril.

There was some technical talk about firewalls and the need to protect ourselves but it seemed clear to me that even these “digital generation” students view man’s relationship to the digital age as sketchy.

Then a student gave me just the opening I was looking for to make what I thought was a crucial point no student had mentioned. “If we were using a printed book in this class,” the student said, “we could have continued our reading for this class. Her clear implication was that we wouldn’t have been subject to the whims of computers.

So I pounced.

Let’s say that we did use a book in this class, I said. And, the night before our class started, the book store was robbed and all our our books were stolen. The obvious question is would we question the printed book era? Would we worry about the reliability of the written word on dead tree products?

Of course we wouldn’t. We would curse the (insert vulgar name here) who had robbed the book store. Since Cain and Abel, and from the bronze age to the digital age, society has had to worry about scumbags of one sort or another ruining progress.

The figurative light bulbs flashed on in class as students responded to my now semi-hysterical attack on the morally bankrupt hackers who apparently get a big kick out of blowing up ASU for a day or two by STEALING data.

I often worry about society’s occasional efforts to defend hackers.  Find examples here, here and here. Most of the people who take that position are “ends just the means folks,” and I get that.

It seems to me that the amount of hacking done for noble reasons pales compared to the amount of malicious, mean-spirited hacking that is akin to knocking over mailboxes and keying cars.

ASU might have been hacked for profit. That’s called stealing and fraud. Or the University might have been hacked because like Mt. Kilimanjaro, “it was there.” That’s the same twisted reasoning used by mailbox bashers and  the people who key cars. Either way, the hacking is morally bankrupt and society has some tough choices to make.

Every day we become more dependent on digital and that means every day we become more vulnerable to the human jackasses who think it’s sport to screw with valuable data.

Certainly we need to make systems more secure. But we also need to deal sternly with both the “sport hackers” and the criminals who hold our economic future in their hands.