Lions and Hackers and Bears, Oh My!
by Stevan Alburty

From The Net
October 1995

1995 by Stevan Alburty
    All rights reserved.




I refuse to believe that planes can fly.

Spare me a recitation of the laws of aerodynamics; I've heard it all before. All that talk of thrusting and lifting - nonsense, I say.

I have no plausible alternative explanation for what permits a 250,000 pound jet to reach a cruising altitude of 35,000 feet. And, of course, my skepticism does not stop me from getting into a plane on a regular basis and risking death from engine failure, terrorism or the fish entree.

My irrational but resolute disbelief in the physics of flight is the same type of mental model at play in the general public's attitudes towards secure financial transactions on the Internet. There's a tremendous amount of hysteria and misinformation out there in the heartland.

I recently conducted some focus groups on people's attitudes regarding the purchasing of goods and services over the Internet and an alarming percentage of participants expressed grave reservations about privacy and security. When one man said he was not about to type his credit card number onto no screen, by gum, heads around the table began bobbing in agreement as if everyone were suddenly doing a Katherine Hepburn imitation.

One woman was convinced that hackers were going to somehow break into her hard drive to get all of her "information." When asked what type of "information" she had on her hard drive a hacker would actually want, she couldn't think of any, but was fearful none the less. (This mental model reminds me of the old western movies where the homely, bonneted maiden aunt was convinced the marauding Indians were going to have their savage way with her.) Lady, trust me - the hackers don't want you, they want Citibank.

We all know that the media is responsible for 95% of all of our country's troubles. (The dissolution of the family unit and the films of Drew Barrymore accounting for the remaining 5%) Journalists get paid to scare us and we love them for it. Just as we'll plunk down $8.00 to see the latest space-alien-erupts-out-of-a-body-part movie, we read scary news articles because there's a sick part of us deep inside that loves to have the bejeezus scared out of us.

A recent issue of Kiplinger's financial magazine featured a cover story on financial privacy. In amongst some solid reporting on computer security came a few Enquirer-style chestnuts like "technically at least, while you're connected to the Internet, a determined hacker could tap into the personal tax, budgeting or banking data stored on your computer." Oh, puhleeze. On the silver screen (always a good source of realistic mental models) we've had "Johnny Mnemonic" (as unwatchable as it was unpronounceable) and "The Net." The latter's breathless trailer told us "Angela Bennett lives in the age of information. Everything about her is encoded somewhere on a complex network of information. It's something Angela never thought about... until the day she was deleted." Funny, that's just the fate I have in mind for this movie.

Right now, the media is telling us that credit card transactions over the Internet are not safe. (None of them seem to have heard about Netscape's secure server.) Eventually, the media will get tired of saying this and then they'll start telling us that it's perfectly ok and the flood gates will open. Let me just say this to the American public - and I want you lean up real close to the page so you can hear me: you have as much chance of having someone steal your credit card number on the Internet as you have of someday owning France, so just stop it and get on with your life.

In the last week alone, I gave my credit card number by mail, phone or in person to a magazine, a book club, a charity, four restaurants and an airline. I also handed my card to a hotel desk clerk who looked a wee bit like Jeffrey Dahmer. All of these were opportunities for some skeeveball to use my credit card number for nefarious purposes, but it never even crossed my mind because a) I accept the risk of theft and fraud as the price of admission to our robust American economy, and b) I know the credit card company is liable for any amount over $50.00. Credit card fraud in America hit $1 billion in 1993, but this has not seemed to dampen our enthusiasm for using plastic.

At a recent convention of the Internet Society in Hawaii, panelists kept throwing around a figure in the neighborhood of $3 trillion when projecting the value of goods and services being sold over the Internet by the year 2000. That's only four years from now. We'd better get started. So get out your credit cards, America. Then fire up your browser and do your duty!