Anti-Buzz Just for Fun Security

Anti-Buzz: Locked Up Data

The Buzz: I could survive without the Internet …

The Anti-Buzz: *sitcom laugh track*

This week I want to be a little less profound and a little less issue oriented. This week I want to indulge in my own experience. The last two week’s mentioned that I was taking my first business trip. Read last week’s article if you want “juicy” details; all you need to know this time is that I went to do some work at a company I have nicknamed “Big Time” on some data that-can’t-be-on-the-Internet. So this is a personal narrative, but disguised in all this is the brilliant revelation of exactly how limiting going “off-grid”can be in today’s world. It wasn’t that long ago that most of your life was done sans Internet, and yet, damming up that great rush of information has a profound effect on your existence.

Going Retro

I traveled with another fellow who, in the interest of respecting everyone’s privacy, I will call Looper, (in honor of the film we would bond over later). Looper has been around, and has done plenty of things he is obligated not to talk about. He is also about 20 years older than me. Suffice it to say, he is not as starstruck as I am. Still, as we are walking from our car to the office, Looper is carrying a notebook and printout of an entire book on SQL queries and he sort of chuckles at this and says, “I feel like it’s the 80’s again, with all these printouts.” Certainly, going without Internet feels like going backwards through time.

The SQL book was what really drove the point home. When you think of going “off-grid” you’d probably just think about how you’d be cut off from e-mail, facebook and texting. You’d instantly “get” that you couldn’t communicate with other people. In some ways, this might even make you more serene. “No distractions for a week,” you might think. But that’s really only one facet of even the most casual use. I can’t speak for all professions, but in everything even close to computer science, one is often searching the Internet for tutorials, advice, code examples, etc, so that a problem can quickly be patched up. This permanent “phone a friend” is wonderful, but it is also a crutch. You don’t realize how often you use it until it is gone.

Non-Instant Gratification

Looper brought a flash drive on the mistaken belief that he’d be allowed to fill it with approved data files. He was informed that, no, the drive would be immediately confiscated if he attempted to enter the lab with it. I wait in the Big Time lobby while Looper returns the flash drive to the car. My escort remains with me and makes pleasant small talk. I’m not thinking too much about this until we get upstairs to the lab. The lab is surrounded by people waiting to get in. That’s when I learn that the lab is a “skiff” – that is, nobody is allowed inside unless a Big Time employee is present. This early in the morning, our escort was the only Big Time employee available, so the entire lab emptied and waited while we messed around with small talk and flash drives.

Most everybody would tell you that “Security is a big deal” in the computing world, but the reality is that instant gratification typically wins out over security. We give over so much information to the Internet: name, address, bank information and yes,really, it’s plenty “secure,” but the truth is that it was only ever going to as secure as “instant” could afford. Shopping with a single mouse-click trumps fretting over how perfectly secure your credit card is.

When the stakes are higher, you don’t automate security. You use people. People talk. People use elevators. People need coffee. People are not instant. Going off-grid is slow.

Unwritable Media

We were teamed with several other researchers. I should not bore you with the details, but this team, such that it is, has a central location for our shared code, (a repository, to use the technical term). That repository needs to be transferred to our machines in the lab so that we can use it. As I already mentioned, a flash drive was contraband, but this wasn’t because it might bring data in, but because it might take data out. You can bring whatever you need into the lab if you … (wait for it) … burn it to a CD. Suddenly my old stack of blanks didn’t look so shoddy.

Again, on the surface this doesn’t seem like a big deal. So somebody grabbed our repository and installed it on the lab machines. Nice. But it’s not all there. We had made changes at the last minute the night before. So the custodian of our code has to leave. He has to go to his car, find a wi-fi signal, download our changes, burn them to a new CD, and then come back. And the first time he did this, he still didn’t grab everything we needed. So he had to do it again.

Was he not listening? Were we communicating poorly? Probably both. We were mistake prone precisely because the Internet normally allows you to be. The cost of fixing a mistake is usually negligible. Have you ever written an e-mail, said something like “included are the 3rd quarter yadda yadda whatevers” and then promptly sent off the e-mail without attaching the 3rd quarter yadda yadda whatevers? You follow up with a “sorry, attaching the files I claim to have attached would be nice, right?” and then your crisis is averted.

Off the grid, every tiny mistake you make probably costs you another 30-minute ordeal. Your entire work day is gummed up if you can’t get it exactly right the first time. In the information age you can always try try again, but not so when the domain gets locked up.

Similarly, any information we wanted to take with us had to get reviewed by security, and was then handed over in the form of a freshly burnt CD. It was not long ago that these coasters seemed so efficient, but revisiting them now reminded me how far removed we are getting from physical media. Looper and I were fretting that we had to get this CD all the way back home without scratching. I swear, physical media is the worst. In the digital age, your data is never trapped in some bottleneck where you can lose it forever. Going off-grid ruins data immortality; yet another thing that we take for granted.

Until next week, stay on the grid.

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