Viruses, Hacking and Hoaxes: The Unfortunately Unethical Side of the Internet

Unethical abuse of communication is not new. The rabbinic scholar, Rabbeinu Gershom, lived a thousand years ago and was considered one of the earliest and greatest scholars of the Ashkenazi Jewish community.
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Unethical abuse of communication is not new. The rabbinic scholar, Rabbeinu Gershom, lived a thousand years ago and was considered one of the earliest and greatest scholars of the Ashkenazi Jewish community. Known as "The Light of the Exile," Rabbeinu Gershom enacted a number of new rules for his generation. These new rules, called "takanot," would only have been created if there was a reason. One of his more famous takanot was a prohibition against reading other people's mail. Letters back then contained sensitive business information which could be very harmful if read by an outsider, so Rabbeinu Gershom legislated against reading other people's mail as a safeguard against this immoral practice.

A thousand years later, unethical hackers are breaking into computer networks to read innocent people's mail. In today's age, the mail is electronic and no rabbinic decree or security software is capable of blocking a determined hacker from intrusion into our privacy. Internet hackers are striking several times a minute around the world and anyone with an internet connection is at risk.

Arguably, the most well-known company of the Digital Age is Google, whose mantra is "Don't be evil." If everyone adopted this precept, we would have no need for Norton, Kaspersky or Mcafee -- all multi-million dollar companies creating new secure ways to stop hacking, malware, online identity theft and viruses. Big companies, small companies and the little old lady down the street are all vulnerable to being hacked.

We've all read about the larger online hacking debacles of the past couple years. In late 2013, Target Corp. lost 40 million credit card numbers to Russian-speaking hackers. After that hackers broke into the servers of Home Depot, Adobe Systems, Chase, eBay and Anthem. If you do business with any of these companies there was a good chance your personal data was violated. Then, of course, there was the much publicized hacking of Sony, in which the personal email messages of many Hollywood actors and executives were compromised.

On the smaller scale of email hacking, which hits closer to home for many, is when your private email account is attacked and thousands of email messages are sent to everyone in your contact database without your knowledge. In some cases the email message might be a scam, stating that you've been stranded in a remote location far from home and need some money wired to you. In other instances, your email might be hacked to provide access into your Facebook account or even your online banking account, causing fraudulent abuse of your finances. These violations of privacy are becoming more commonplace.

Sometimes the hacking occurs by taking advantage of our better judgment. One woman told me that she recently received an email explaining there was a dangerous file on her computer that had to be deleted at once. She was not sure of the validity of such an odd message, but became concerned that this file could wipe out her data -- including thousands of digital photos of her family's vacations. She went ahead and removed this essential Windows system file causing her computer to stop working. Over the years, I've seen dozens of people suffer with anxiety after a virus has corrupted their computer data. This data loss is more than simply a hassle; it's a violation of privacy and the theft of ones possessions.

We've come to regard spam email as simply a nuisance, but in truth these messages constitute a virus. Each second of our lives that we use to delete an email from a Saudi Prince who needs to transfer a few million dollars into our bank account is our time that is stolen from us. Each second of our lives that we have to decipher whether the "secure" message from our bank is legitimate or an attempt at phishing is more time stolen from us. The minutes we take out of our busy day to visit to determine whether the urgent email we received from a friend is a hoax or a legitimate concern is time wasted. These are unnecessary intrusions.

Someone neglects to sign out of their email account while in an Internet Cafe out of the country has their email hacked and unintentionally sends out thousands of email messages to friends, relatives and business contacts with an attached file that contains a virus. Even if only a handful of recipients open the risky file, the hassle that has been caused is significant and can lead to data loss, hours of time wasted, financial setback and considerable anxiety. We are all victims of this pernicious activity on the Web and since there's no end in sight to this unethical abuse, we all must become more vigilant.

Earlier this month, one of my personal websites was hacked into by a hacking team in France that uploaded over 3 million spam comments to the website. These hackers created their own user account to the website in order to advertise fake designer sunglasses and menswear. It took hours for me to recover my website and return it to normal functionality, not to mention the unnecessary frustration. Already this year my technology company has had to recover several websites of Jewish organizations that have been hacked by anti-Semitic groups. These hackers replace the websites of synagogues and Jewish nonprofits with their messages of hate and violence.

In the Digital Age, we all use the Internet and we are thus all susceptible to the malicious threats of hackers. Individuals and businesses are threatened on a daily basis with computer viruses, malware and identity theft. Critical files are held ransom if the business owner doesn't send a money order to these nefarious individuals. Email messages can never be secure enough to be kept private from those intent on phishing our data. With all of the benefits of technology, we live in fear that our passwords aren't strong enough, our data not backed up enough, and our online financial transactions are not encrypted enough. We continue to be inundated with spam and scams, hoaxes and hacks.

So what is the remedy for this dark side of technology? We should look to the wisdom of Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook. Zuckerberg, explains that at his company they have cultivated a unique culture and management approach called the Hacker Way. In fact, "Hacker Way" is the main street on which Facebook's headquarters are located. "The word 'hacker,' he says, "has an unfairly negative connotation from being portrayed in the media as people who break into computers. In reality, hacking just means building something quickly or testing the boundaries of what can be done. Like most things, it can be used for good or bad, but the vast majority of hackers I've met tend to be idealistic people who want to have a positive impact on the world."

Hacker culture, Zuckerberg claims, is extremely open and meritocratic. I believe that in the interest of creating a more ethical Internet, we must reclaim the idea of hacking for good. Rather than falling prey to the evil hackers who seek to take advantage of people through the Internet, we must invest in those who look for positive hacking initiatives.

We must remain vigilant to secure our online data and networks and encourage others to do so as well. The time and money we spend to defend the Internet from evil is a waste and could be used for good. As the Internet grows and matures, I hope morality wins.

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