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For a long time now, I've been explaining why the world would have been better off if Apple's computers had come to dominate homes and businesses. I've focused on the virtues of Apple's software almost exclusively, even though Apple has for most of existence been primarily a hardware company, like Dell or Hewlett Packard. Why? Because it's clear to all us Martians that what makes or breaks a computing experience is the software. To paraphrase one of your ex-Presidents, "It's the Software, stupid!"
I've also come to believe that humans are genetically predisposed to self-deception, allowing them to talk themselves into whatever point of view is most convenient, or is perceived as being in their best self-interest. Thus, argument over the relative worth of one technology or another is pointless, because no carefully researched and supported set of facts will ever be enough to persuade someone with the opposite view. Indeed, the truth of this axiom is encapsulated in the common human phrase of folk wisdom,
"You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink."
I've noted that when someone conjures this phrase to explain a colleague or acquaintance's intransigence about something, those listening will nod to each other knowingly and somewhat sadly aver, "So true."
And yet, how many humans really think they're as "stupid" as horses?
I didn’t intend to write this article today… In fact, I’m right in the middle of three others that I want to finish. However, it just leaped at me from the front page of today’s Washington Post Business page, and I couldn’t resist. In an article called Access Denied, the writer bemoans the many passwords and PINs and such that the modern, web-connected human must juggle in daily life. People today have so many passwords to remember, they simply can’t, and this undermines the very security the passwords are set up to ensure, since companies will typically allow a shortcut to someone who claims to have forgotten a password—for a bank account, for example.
When I forget a password, I launch Keychain Access, which is a surprisingly sophisticated application that I use in a very simple way. Namely, I enter a search term in the search field, which invokes a live search on the Keychain database and displays matching results below. Each result shows the username associated with the website or application, so it’s easy to find which Key I’m looking for. Double-clicking on the Key brings up a dialog panel that gives me some management capability on the particular key. I’m sure this is cool and significant, but I go straight for the “Show password” checkbox.
Ah, computer security training. Don’t you just love it? Doesn’t it make you feel secure to know that your alert IT department is on patrol against the evil malware that slinks in and takes the network down every now and then, giving you a free afternoon off? Look at all the resources those wise caretakers have activated to keep you safe!
- Virulent antivirus software, which wakes up and takes over your PC several times a day (always, it seems, just at the moment when you actually needed to type something important).
- Very expensive, enterprise-class desktop-management software that happily recommends to management when you need more RAM, when you’ve downloaded peer-to-peer software contrary to company rules, and when you replaced the antivirus software the company provides with a brand that’s a little easier on your CPU.
- Silent, deadly, expensive, and nosy mail server software that reads your mail and removes files with suspicious-looking extensions, or with suspicious-looking subject lines like “I Love You“, while letting creepy-looking email with subject lines like “You didnt answer deniable antecedent” or “in beef gunk” get through.
- Expensive new security personnel, who get to hire even more expensive security contractors, who go on intrusion-detection rampages once or twice a year, spend lots of money, gum up the network, and make recommendations for the company to spend even more money on security the next year.
- Field trips to Redmond, Washington, to hear what Microsoft has to say for itself, returning with expensive new licenses for Groove and SharePoint Portal Server (why both? why either?), and other security-related software.
- New daily meetings that let everyone involved in protecting the network sit and wring their hands while listening to news about the latest computing vulnerabilities that have been discovered.
- And let’s not forget security training! My favorite! By all means, we need to educate the staff on the proper “code of conduct” for handling company information technology gear. Later in the article, I’ll tell you all about the interesting things I learned this year, which earned me an anonymous certificate for passing a new security test. Yay!
In fact, this article started out as a simple expose on the somewhat insulting online training I just took. But one thought led to another, and soon I was ruminating on the Information Technology organization as a whole, and about the effectiveness and rationality of its response to the troublesome invasion of micro-cyberorganisms of the last 6 or 7 years.
Protecting the network
Who makes decisions about computer security for your organization? Chances are, it’s the same guys who set up your network and desktop computer to begin with. When the plague of computer viruses, worms, and other malware began in earnest, the first instinct of these security Tzars was understandable: Protect!
Protect the investment…
Protect the users…
Protect the network!
And the plague itself, which still ravages our computer systems… was this an event that our wise IT leaders had foreseen? Had they been warning employees about the danger of email, the sanctity of passwords, and the evil of internet downloads prior to the first big virus that struck? If your company’s IT staff is anything like mine, I seriously doubt it. Like everyone else, the IT folks in charge of our computing systems at the office only started paying attention after a high-profile disaster or two. Prior to that, it was business as usual for the IT operations types: “Ignore it until you can’t do so anymore.” A vulgar translation of this “code of conduct” is often used instead: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Unfortunately, the IT Powers-That-Be never moved beyond their initial defensive response. They never actually tried to investigate and treat the underlying cause of the plague. No, after they had finished setting up a shield around the perimeter, investing in enterprise antivirus and spam software, and other easy measures, it’s doubtful that your IT department ever stepped back to ask one simple question: How much of the plague has to do with our reliance on Microsoft Windows? Would we be better off by switching to another platform?
It’s doubtful that the question ever crossed their minds, but even if someone did raise it, someone else was ready with an easy put-down or three:
- It’s only because Windows is on 95% of the world’s desktops.
- It’s only because there are so many more hackers now.
- And all the hackers attack Windows because it’s the biggest target.
At about this time in the Computer Virus Wars, the rallying cry of the typical IT shop transitioned from “Protect the network… users… etc.” to simply: