This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday October 13 2016 under the title Licence of Anonymity
My G-Mail accounts were hacked at the end of July. The hacker, pretending to be me, sent out messages to my contacts asking for money and prevented me accessing my own accounts. He did the same with my Facebook account.
One real-life friend decided to test the hacker out by introducing false information. PH (my Personal Hacker) responded to the testing by becoming petulant: “I am surprised with the way you have been making a joke of a very serious situation.” My friend knew that I would not write like this, especially if I were asking him for help. He speculated that PH was “not a native English speaker.” Another real-life friend came to the same conclusion after receiving a nasty message from the PH saying “mind your business”. “I reckon the person is someone who speaks English as a second language.”
I had wondered if PH was a Sri Lankan. To one real-life friend he wrote: “I want to ask if you can lend me about €850 to make up the little money left with me so that i will be able to sort out a few bills and make the necessary arrangements to return home. I will refund you the money in full as soon as i get back.” He makes the point that it is difficult to transfer money abroad from Sri Lanka – which is true. My wife believes the English in some of his messages is too good for a Sri Lankan but in those he has been copying from my e-mails.
PH showed his character when he approached someone I have never met in real life but whom I have known online since 2008. She showed the goodness of her heart by immediately offering to help ‘me’. She thought he wanted 50 euro and asked how she could send it. He suggested MoneyGram but stressed it was 850 euro that he wanted. She said she was struggling on a severely limited income and it would cause her hardship even to send 50 but she would try. He said “can you send 400”? What kind of person is this?
The inimitable Donald Trump imagined a typical hacker as “someone sitting on their bed that weighs four hundred pounds.” A comment from a real-life friend about my PH was more succinct: “A vindictive little shit”.
Remote Control Valour
Way back in the last century, I studied Balzac’s Le Père Goriot for my French ‘O’ Level. A small passage from that has stuck in my mind ever since. Rastignac and Bianchon are discussing Rousseau, “Do you remember that he asks the reader somewhere what he would do if he could make a fortune by killing an old mandarin somewhere in China by mere force of wishing it, and without stirring from Paris? … Pshaw! I am at my thirty-third mandarin”.
In the 1949 film The Third Man, Orson Welles, as Harry Lime, is at the top of the Wiener Riesenrad Ferris wheel looking down: “Victims? Don’t be melodramatic. Look down there. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man.” This displays Lime’s amorality, his lack of interest in the children who are victims of his diluted penicillin, brain-damaged as a result of meningitis.
I have always been uncomfortable about the way movies glamorise snipers and professional hit-men. Snipers certainly have to develop an impressive skill, as do hackers. Snipers are shooting at people a long distance away. The longest shot ever was over 2400 meters; snipers are shooting at people who are hit before the sound of the shot even reaches them. Navy Seal Sniper Chris Kyle had over 150 confirmed kills. He was himself killed on a firing range by a former Marine with PTSD. Is it moral or ethical to shoot somebody from over a mile away? Somebody who has no warning, can’t even see you or have any chance to shoot back?
Drones, killing machines that can be operated from thousands of miles away from a keyboard with no danger to the killer, have killed far more people under Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama than under GW Bush.
The anonymity of the internet allows PH to bully with impunity total strangers who have never done him any harm, and are in no position to kick him in the nuts. Tough guy! In Plato’s Republic, there is the tale of a shepherd named Gyges who finds a ring that makes him invisible. He has sex with a queen, kills her king, and takes his throne. The impunity of invisibility is corrupting. Physical invisibility only occurs in fiction but the internet has granted the license of anonymity and trolls and hackers operate under a cloak of invisibility to behave in a way they would not contemplate if they were visible in the real world. They are unaccountable.
Digital Savvy versus Wisdom
PH dropped all pretence of BEING ME when he wrote TO ME! Signing himself as “Fishbird” he wrote: “I am sorry for all the problems i have caused you this past few days. However, i want you to know the follwing (sic): I don’t know you nor have any particular personal motivation for taking over your mailbox other than looking for little money to survive on. I am willing to hand you all i have taken from you if you will help me with very little money to enable me settle my school bills. I know i have wronged you but please i need your help. I will let you know how to prevent future hacks as creating new emails is not the best line of action.”
If he is clever enough to cause so much disruption and unpleasantness, surely it would have been more intelligent to just send me an e-mail in the first place asking for my help. As he has been grubbing through my personal correspondence he will have gathered that I am an elderly person surviving on a modest pension. He will also have seen that am always giving money away, so I probably would have helped him. How often do these scams bring in any money?
Mat Honan is digital savvy enough to write regularly for Wired magazine. “In the space of one hour, my entire digital life was destroyed. First my Google account was taken over, then deleted. Next my Twitter account was compromised, and used as a platform to broadcast racist and homophobic messages. And worst of all, my Apple ID account was broken into, and my hackers used it to remotely erase all of the data on my iPhone, iPad, and MacBook.”
Matt Honan managed to establish some contact with his hacker and asked him why he did it: “His answer wasn’t satisfying. He says he likes to publicize security weaknesses, so companies will fix them.” Pull the other one!
I readily admit that PH is much cleverer than me when it comes to the intricacies of IT. He is sadly deficient when it comes to moral or ethical intelligence. Why is PH going to all this trouble? There is a strong sense of cognitive dissonance. He is lying to himself. He seems to be angry with me just because I am trying to get on with my life, in which I try to do good rather than harm. Somehow I seem to have failed him because he is being frustrated in his project of doing harm rather than good. How does he sleep at night?