Hack Attack of the Pocket Zombies


June 3, 2011

It's been a banner week for hacking. First, on Sunday, fake news started popping up on the PBS website, along with a pixelated animation of a gray cat with a cherry Pop Tart for a body leaving a waving rainbow in its wake as it flies through space. (Ah, if only more of what aired on PBS was as interesting as the flying "Nyan Cat.") Then, on Wednesday, Google revealed that, for months, Chinese hackers have infiltrated some Gmail accounts used by senior U.S. government officials, journalists and Chinese activists. And in between, the nation snickered at the news that a smutty picture had been sent to a co-ed from the Twitter account of a congressman. The delightfully named Rep. Anthony Weiner asserted that a hacking prankster was responsible.


There were doubts about this, given the congressman's bizarre responses to direct questions throughout the week. Most notably, Mr. Weiner was unable to categorically deny that the crotch in the photo was his. Still, when that image appeared publicly, he quickly tweeted that he was a victim of technology, that his TiVo had turned on him and his Facebook account had been hacked: "Is my blender gonna attack me next?"


That may have only been an effort at damage control, but it does vividly capture the angst of our age, the nagging apprehension that we're surrounded by machines that are just setting us up for a fall. Never before have we been so dependent on devices, and we aren't so sure we can control them. Once the ominous HAL 9000 was envisioned as a mainframe computer. Now we each carry our own HALs in our pockets.


Even if our computers don't go rogue, we're right to worry that our own clumsiness with these powerful technologies can lead to embarrassment or even disaster. There is the scourge of "pocket-dialing," accidental phone calls that leave one open to eavesdropping. What misery has been visited on the human race by mistaking the "Reply All" email button for "Reply"? And in Mr. Weiner's case, it has been speculated that he meant to send the photo privately via Twitter to the co-ed, but published it publicly through a keystroke error. And these are just ways that we do ourselves in.


How much worse it is when hackers take control of our devices and use them against us. Some are after our banking and billing info (the apparent motive behind the recent infiltration of millions of Sony PlayStation accounts). Some are out to punish and intimidate—the PBS website hackers claimed it was payback for a "Frontline" documentary on Wikileaks. And others are out to spy—the Google hack seems to be such an effort.


It doesn't help that the burden of keeping safe falls so heavily on mere casual users of technology. We're told to use antivirus software and update it regularly. And so the hackers start spoofing us with fake antivirus software and phony security updates. What hope does grandma have when hackers get past even the IT guys?


A stealth army of evil geniuses spends every day crafting crafty code, and the only thing keeping them from taking remote control of our lives is a password. It's a flimsy defense. We're told to make our passwords more robust: Don't use actual words. Make them longer. Include numbers and symbols. Make them case-sensitive. Don't use the same password on different accounts. Change all your passwords regularly. Soon we'll have to use 57-character randomly generated passwords that we switch out daily if not hourly. And probably the only ones stumped by them will be us.


Maybe all this hacking is responsible for the resurgence in popularity of zombie movies and books. Science-fiction, fantasy and horror genres tend to reflect, if not exploit, the anxieties of an age. Mary Shelley tapped into steam-powered worries that science was getting too big for its britches. B-movies of the 1950s thrived on uncertainty over what The Bomb would bring (screenwriters never could settle on whether fallout would make people tiny or insects huge). Now we worry our digital companions may become zombified—their little electronic brains taken over by shadowy forces and turned against us.


Technology, with all its promise to empower us, is also making us vulnerable in new ways. And nothing is quite so anxious-making as vulnerability. Not that there's anything wrong with a little well-placed anxiety. After all, as Kevin McCarthy learned in "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," it pays to be paranoid.