A Nation of “Manchurian Candidates”?

PRENOTE:  Nov. 28, I learned of a malicious hack of my computer.  This seems to have been much more than an amateur gambit.  Hopefully I can learn from this experience, and I want to pass along my own personal opinions, from my own experience.

Much of the following was written on January 20.  This PRENOTE is new, as is the POSTNOTE at the end.  The earlier contents are revised, but retain the original meaning.

The issue very personally impacted on me, and I think is very serious for any ordinary individual who uses a personal computer.  Since my e-addresses were stolen, you may have been affected.  My instinct is to apologize.  At the same time, I had no way of knowing of this theft.

I hope you read and consider this as it applies to you in your own daily life with a computer.  (Other than personal humiliation, I don’t think I had other losses.)

*

It has been a difficult time since the night of Nov. 28, 2019, when I got an e-letter in junk mail from a Ukraine IP address.  The sender self-identified as a hacker, describing material in possession generated by theft by other hackers of my property.   The writer made a threat if $500 was not deposited in a bitcoin account.  I mentioned this in a late November post, here.

I did not, nor will I ever,  take the bait – no concessions of any kind – and while my frame of mind has varied from day to day in the last eight weeks, there is no doubt that an unknown someone(s) somewhere in the world, somehow identified me as a target to be exploited and damaged.  This has surprised me, as I am only one of tens of millions of ordinary individuals who use computers in daily life.

The fact is: my computer was captured (my term) and my privacy was very seriously invaded within my own home (I do not own or use mobile devices).

Looking back, I can trace the evolution of this invasion of privacy going back probably several years, though it would be pointless to try to make such a case.  (See also the comments at the end of this post.)

*

I thought myself to be more than reasonably diligent about security,  Now I’m sure I wasn’t.

At this point, think the main advice I have for individual computer users is this:  1) assume no privacy.  2) Turn off your device when not using it.  “Sleep” doesn’t mean sleep in our context.   3) When you send something, authenticate yourself; before you open something be reasonably sure that it is safe.  Nothing you do can absolutely guarantee safety. Do what you can to diminish the risk.

Ironically, a column in Jan. 29, 2020, Minneapolis Star Tribune Business section (photo below) highlights the problem.  You can read it here.  It is worth printing out and sharing.  Share this blog with others.

page D8 Minneapolis Star Tribune January 29, 2020

Following is my attempt to tell my story only to encourage your own reflections.  While this is a long post, it will be only a tiny summary of my life in this internet age in which we live.

*

(Jan. 20, 2020): Life for the last eight weeks was emotionally topsy-turvy since I got the note on Thanksgiving night from a polite “hacker”, written in very good American English.  Right before Christmas, 2019, I essentially started over, deleting everything on my computer, getting a new e-address, and reloading (hopefully) only un-corrupted content.  My entire e-mail history was permanently erased. (I haven’t missed it!).

Back home with computer, I discovered this blog was blocked to me.  How could this be?  This is my blog.  It was the first time in 10 years of this blog that I had lost access it.  (It was, and remains, https.)

More work with more technicians.  January 20 I recovered access to the blog – at least to the extent that I could once again post at this space.  (The blog was never really lost, but was inaccessible to me, its proprietor.)

I’m grateful to the techs who did the work to recover both computer and blog.

*

My recent life experience (and contemporary national political issues) has caused me to  think a lot about the old book, then movie, The Manchurian Candidate.  It’s still available, and worth a look.

My opinion: we all have been captured by the ‘telescreen’ envisioned by George Orwell in his 1949 book, “1984“.  We are “brain-washed” constantly, and willingly.

The day I wrote this part of this blog, Jan. 20, 2020, the Minneapolis Star Tribune front page headline “above the fold” read: “Russian trolls tied to unrest in S. America”.   This is no longer a rare contemporary comment about our new world.  An e-mail from a long-time friend ‘across the pond’ the same day said this:  “It’s a jungle out there”, referring to the internet.

Jan. 4: The missing ‘tele screen” (from Goerge Owelll’s 1984)

The Manchurian Candidate?

I will never know who, when or how hackers became interested in or accessed me.  I have no idea where they were when violating my rights.  Fixing such is literally impossible.  Their base of operation was likely my own computer.

I knew that someone, somewhere had been interfering with my computer for several years – I suspected things were amiss long ago, but could not get anyone to pay serious attention.  Security scans came up with nothing, including through Apple itself.

A prime suspect seems to have been very sophisticated and undetectable malware (see above referenced column) which allowed someone to capture and control my computer without detection, even though I had  sophisticated anti-malware protection.

Since most all of us, including myself, have become dependent on the telescreen and those who manipulate media content, we have come to live in what I call “the Wild West”.  We have all become “Manchurian Candidates” in one way or another.  For us, the ‘shining object’ is the ease of technology.

*

Here’s a brief account of my personal history.  (This has been a most useful exercise for me; I’d recommend a similar exercise for yourself.)

I’m old.  “Keyboarding” came to me when I learned to type in high school in 1956.  I have long said that learning to type was one of my most valuable life skills.  I learned to type on a manual typewriter – I first touched an  electric in 1963.

I grew up before television, in a time when cameras meant film which had to be developed.  No instant photography; we couldn’t imagine taking hundreds of pictures a day, as is easily possible now, for anyone.

In college in the late 50s, computers were not on my screen.  I’d guess most of us couldn’t even imagine such things as individual computers, even in 1960.

The first “computer” I actually touched was in early 1983, an early Mac.  My Apple dealer has a 1984 version on display in his store.  Below is a photo of that machine, which looks just like the first one I touched:

1984 Apple Macintosh seen Dec. 2019

I recall that this machine was very intimidating to me, and I was a proficient typist.  It was owned by a teacher colleague.  I recall being worried about hitting the wrong key and deleting everything I’d entered….

About 1987 – I was in my late 40s – my employer began the transition to computers, which essentially were used for word processing and e-mails.  There was no talk of web sites.  We staff members all trained together on the mysterious devices in front of us, beginning with the on-off switch.  It seems amusing now, but at the time this technology was a mystery to most of us.

During that period of time, from 1985-2002, I edited a newsletter for members of a cultural organization, and it wasn’t until about 2000 that there was the first (and only) reference to e-mail address or website.  (The ‘cut-and-paste’ newsletter was published every two months, generally six pages.  Towards the end, the newsletter showed the benefits of word-processing, cleaner layout and the like, but it was not polished in today’s terms.)

In 2000, 20 years ago this month, I retired, and began the adventure of having to deal with my own computer.

Computer was and is important to me.  Communicating “outside the walls” of retirement was my personal connection to the world.  Thus my first website in 2002 included “Outside the Walls” in its name.

The first half of the years to today were with Microsoft products.  In late 2009, I made my first venture into Apple, which is what I still use, and will continue to use; strictly personal preference.  The switch was not due to any issue.  My good friend had Apple and knew an Apple Dealer he trusted.  “Why not…”?  An easy question to answer

As noted, in 2002 I established my first website.  Today I have four, all of them, like this, SSL (https).

I have never had a laptop or iPhone or similar.

100% of my work on computer is done at home.  I thought I was safe with a single device.

*

In the past 20 years,  there have been the kinds of problems experienced, I would guess, by all computer users: viruses, crashes and the like.

The general sequence seems to be: 1) a vulnerability is discovered in a computer, and exploited; 2) the vulnerability infects equipment such as mine; 3) the vulnerability is fixed…and the sequence is repeated, ever more complex and mysterious and thus subject to even worse abuse.

Hackers are not amateurs.  As we know from the news, they are often well-funded and often nationally sponsored, including, of course, the U.S.  They are specialists without borders.  They are one example of todays nuclear weapons, in my opinion (climate change, global pandemics are some others).  Imagine how it would be to see the internet shut down for just your own community.  It would be a disaster.  Likely it already can be done.

There are no borders.  My fraudster demanded money and wanted payment in bitcoins.  I refused.  I had no idea who this person was or where they were.

*

Over the last 20 years, when I have changed equipment I have transferred information from one computer to the next.  It is now possible that I also transferred hidden problems from one computer to the next – I don’t know that.

Because there is a constant search for vulnerabilities, and because the skills related to computer are shared by lots of technologically gifted people who work (or have worked) both within the industry and in criminal enterprises, etc., and some cross boundaries to the dark side, I doubt there will ever be a time when there is absolute security.  I do my best.  I did my best.  I aspire to do better.

We are in dangerous times.  “Manchurian Candidates” is not an abstract concern for the future of our society in 2020.  Each of us are both part of the problem, and the solution.

Live and learn, I hope.

 

POSTNOTE Jan. 30, 2020:

I sat down one day during these two months to jot out things that had happened over the last 20 years in my own computer life.  I had quite a long list of events.  I simply want to point out two examples.

Most recently, right before Christmas, and at the time that I decided to scrub everything from my computer and start over, I happened to be on-screen when a phantom arrow scrolled to the Malware icon, and turned off the Malware.  Such an arrow was not unknown to me: legitimate folks have asked permission to go on screen with me, to help resolve a problem.  The normal protocol is to help me find what needs to be clicked, and I do the work.

Hackers know the technology and don’t ask permission.

My most dramatic example, however, is one I have rarely said out loud, since it is so bizarre.  But now seems a good time to make it public.

I got my first Mac in the fall of 2009.  It arrived and I picked it up, out of the box.  I got the usual assistance, and took the machine home.

Some time later, I was just looking around in my new machine, and happened across the page for media files.

Then and now I rarely use media, other than the normally available items such as YouTube.

This particular day in 2009, there were two items on my computer, and one of them immediately attracted my attention.  It was a short talk by a person I know who had been elected to a Minnesota State Office three years earlier, in 2006.

I didn’t know the politician then, but he and I met right after the 2006 election, since he had agreed to speak to a group of which I was president, and his election had changed his plans so that he couldn’t attend our meeting in person.

He said he’d make a short video that we could use. The person who did the video had preceded me as president of the organization I now represented.  I knew her well.

On an agreed day we met at a community access station in a suburb, and the incumbent office holder  proceeded to make a short, five minute video for our use at our meeting.  It was so well done that there was no need to edit.

In some unknown way, that brief talk that was on my new computer in late 2009, was exactly as I had heard it when I watched him videotape it at the community access station in November, 2006.

It turned out that that at the meeting (which, of course, I had attended),  the video part didn’t work correctly, but the audio was perfect.  I was the custodian of the tape, which the newly elected leader had asked that I return to him, which I did.  To my knowledge there was no copy made by anyone else.

I have always wondered how it was that this 5 minute talk by a then-largely unknown Minnesota politician, which I had personally witnessed being made, and then heard being presented one single time, ended up inside a brand new Mac, where I listened to it once again.  I can’t answer that question, but I’ve always wondered.  The evidence is long gone….

POSTNOTE 2, FEB. 18, 2020:  After the original post (above), I sent the link to the politician, specifically to fact check my assertion which appears directly above, at the end of the original post. This was his comment on Feb. 1, 2020: “I now remember your mention of this very, very odd situation – still a mystery ! Great biog post – all of us have some form of this experience and you nailed it!  Thank you.”  He served two full terms – 8 years – in his elective position, and remains very active in civic affairs.

 

 

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