Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Safety First

One of the by-products of leading a tax-accountant-by-day-man-about-town-by-night double life is having to attend a lot of cocktail parties. Also, a lot of dry cleaning bills, but that's another story. And at these cocktail parties, people ply you with liquor and ask you questions. Endless questions. What do you do, TED? When do you think this recession will end, TED? Do you think the host is trying to kill us with this bargain basement gin, TED? Wow, TED, is that a bazooka in your pocket, or are you just really happy to see me? And I generally try to answer these questions with good humor and no more than an appropriate level of specificity (I'm in the financial sector. Eventually. I'm pretty sure that's the gin you gave him for Christmas. No, that's just my leg: that ninth martini blurred your vision; nobody is that happy to see you.), but lately I've noticed a disturbing trend, as evidenced by this recent conversation with a total stranger.
Total Stranger: Good evening. Lovely party. I'm a total stranger.
TED: I noticed. I'm TED.
TS: Well, of course you are. Everyone knows you, TED.
TED: We all have our burdens to bear.
TS: Ha. There's that famous TED sense of humor. Say, TED, I was wondering. Where were you born?
TED: Ah, I see you've heard the rumors, but they aren't true. I am categorically not in deep cover for the Kazakhstan secret police. I was born in the U.S.
TS: Of course, but what city were you born in?
TED: You know, no one ever asks me that. Have you tried the lemongrass canapes? They're unique.
TS: I ask everyone that. It's good to know where people come from. So were you born here in DC?
TED: Oh, well, total stranger, I can't really answer that question with any authority. I honestly don't remember the birth experience very well. I was pretty young then.
TS: Oh, TED, you really do play things close to the vest.
TED: I don't own a vest. But there are contexts in which I'm vested.
TS: Still, your accent makes you sound like a local guy. Did you grow up around here, TED? What is the street number of the house you grew up in?
TED: Gosh, is that Dick Cheney? I better go say hi. Nobody ever talks to him at these things.
TS: I hear Cheney's a big animal lover. I still remember my first pet. Her name was Fluffy. What was the name of your first pet, TED?
TED: Oh, and, hey, he's talking to Ann Coulter. I better get over there. You don't want those two too close together. Demon spawn and all that, you know? Adieu, total stranger.
TS: Wait, TED! What year did you graduate from high school? And what is the name of the high school you graduated from? TED? TED!

And I'm not the only guy having this problem. Reports are coming in from all over the globe of smooth operators twisting an apparently innocent conversation in order to make you unknowingly give up the answer to your online security questions. I heard from one unlucky fellow in England who lost his credit rating, his investment accounts, and his seat in the House of Lords when he let slip his grandmother's maiden name after one too many glasses of single malt.

I'm sure you're not foolish enough to, in the course of some innocent flirtation, tell some ne'er-do-well the name of your favorite elementary school teacher, but alcohol and cocktail attire can get the better of the best of us. I have found it wise to develop, and stick to, an alternate version of reality. So even if you're not trying to destroy me financially, you shouldn't be surprised when I tell you that I was born in Astana. Or Paris, if I'm feeling more cosmopolitan and less exotic that day.

The lists of online security questions are extremely long these days, so one needs to develop a similarly extensive list of lies alternate reality security measures. For obvious reasons, I can't give you my entire list, but I will tell you that, so far, no one has called me a liar when I related that the name of my first pet was Cthulhu. I suppose that people would be surprised if it had been anything else.

The trends here are pretty obvious. Intellectual property theft and its countermeasures are both rising quickly. So it's reasonable to assume that, within another three or four years, at least ninety percent of every piece of information that you supply or is demanded of you will be either for security verification purposes or an attempt to steal your security verification information. And with it, your very way of life.

Why take chances? Any fact is inherently unsafe. That person asking you how to find the Eagle (and then asking for your phone number) or the library might be innocent (with respect to intellectual property matters, anyway: one hopes that nobody looking for the Eagle is entirely innocent), but he might be trying to find a way to put his new pair of chaps on your credit card rather than on you. The prudent course of action is never to tell the truth when confronted with any factual inquiry. In fact, you want to be as far away from the truth as possible. Left is right. Day is night. Slavery is freedom.

Truth is subjective, anyway, and the facts are usually overrated. I've always said that you should never let anything as mundane as the facts get in the way of a good story. Now I can add that you should never let the facts get in the way of your security. Obviously, I was ahead of my time.

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