More than once I’ve observed that in our post-9/11 digital age, paranoia is no longer a mental disorder so much as a normal condition of everyday life. A lot of this has to do with a loss of privacy, both voluntary (with our computers) and involuntary (with sweeping new laws.) The tragic events of 9/11 themselves induced an understandably palpable fear and paranoia, worsened by increased surveillance in the interests of heightened security. Some welcome the resulting loss of privacy as the price of safety, others do not, but, either way, this loss is real and here to stay for the foreseeable future. The increasing interconnectivity of the internet and social media has also contributed to this; the more connected everything is, the easier it becomes for someone to watch us, to “get us”. We’ve all likely seen people take a big fall because something they did or said with the presumption of privacy was captured by some form of digital technology and blown up, spreading like wildfire along “the grid”. The old gag that “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you” has taken on a new and less funny edge.
I mention all this because just the other day my paranoia du jour rocketed from the glancing-over-the-shoulder, garden variety level to a full-frontal, conspiracy-theory red- alert, precipitated by the following:
On December 23rd, I posted a blog titled Before It Disappears Altogether, “Merry Christmas” and those who subscribe received it. It dealt with the near-banishment of the phrase “Merry Christmas” and the general whitewashing of that holiday by the pressures of political correctness and why I thought this was a bad idea and had noticed some push-back about it lately. It had been brewing in me for days, so writing it was actually fast and easy, it took me about an afternoon. Before publishing it, I gave a draft to a colleague who I trust for her writing/editing skills as well as her levelheadedness. I asked her to read it and whether she thought I should publish it given its sensitive subject matter, or bow to discretion and live to fight another day. She really liked it and thought I should publish it, adding that it was probably bound to offend somebody sooner or later, but that she thought it was as even-handed and inoffensive as possible, given the social/political/religious topic involved.
So I spent a few hours editing the piece and when it was in shape, I clicked “Publish”, still with some trepidation, with my hands over my eyes and a gulp. Once something is sent out there, it’s out there to stay and often things that are written have a different tone and can be misinterpreted more easily than those that are spoken. I still wasn’t sure that it wouldn’t ruffle some of the wrong feathers and get me into some sort of trouble somewhere down the line. However, response to it was quick, widespread and all positive, at least judging by comments that people left on the site. I’d like to take this chance to thank people for these, especially some friends who were mentioned quite personally in the article and didn’t seem to mind that I hadn’t checked with them first. I also noticed that some had Facebook-paged the article, which sometimes happens when people think something I’ve written deserves to be more widely spread. I’m okay with this, it’s gratifying, though in this case it increased the chances that someone would read the article and take serious exception to it. But, so far, so good, this was all quite satisfying and accompanied by a sigh of relief on my part.
All was well until the afternoon of December 28th, when I tried to go on the site to jot a few things down. I was greeted with a red box with the following ominous warning:
“Reported Attack Page!
This web page at wallacebass.com has been reported as an attack page and has been blocked based on your security preferences. Attack pages try to install programs that steal private information, use your computer to attack others, or damage your system. Some attack pages intentionally distribute harmful software, but many are compromised without the knowledge of their owners.”
In roughly the time it takes to say “Sony/PlayStation/North Korea”, I was filled with a galloping anxiety and all manner of irrational, queasy thoughts. Had the computers of everyone who had visited my site or Facebooked any posts lately been attacked with a virus? Had I compromised the computer system where I work? Would I be fired for this? Were the days of happily blogging away over and was continuing to do so worth all this stress? Should I check myself into a loony bin, before being thrown in jail? Would CSIS be at the door any minute now?
Worse still, the red warning box seemed to be official, coming from Google itself, and actually had a tab which could be clicked on, saying “Help, get me out of here, now!”, which read my mind exactly. It also had a tab which allowed me to ignore the warning and go to my site. I did so with no small fear, but once there, the warning tab reappeared and I couldn’t log in. While all this was happening, the phone rang, but I was so fixated on this problem that I didn’t even notice it. Later, I saw there was a message from my friend Bill Kirchner, who had called all the way from NYC to give me a heads-up that he had encountered the same warning and that I should look into it. Eventually I called him back and we batted this around along with some other things – thanks, Bill. At this point, I alerted my “Girl Friday” Anna, who has way more tech-chops than me, which isn’t saying much. She played around and actually got me logged in to the site’s dashboard, which contained even further dread.
Everything seemed intact, except the Christmas post and all comments left about it had vanished completely into thin air, as though none of it had ever happened. I now had no choice but to conclude that my site had been hacked by some wrathful religious lunatic in revenge for my Christmas post and its offending message. At this point I was gone enough that I actually began to vaguely fear for my sanity, not to mention my future safety.
Along with this smelly and damp fear came self-recrimination. I began to think of the Christmas blog not as a whole, but in CIA surveillance terms of “target” or “flagged” words. “Wallace, you idiot, what were you thinking!?! How could you write a piece with the words fucking, Christmas, Muslims, East Indians, Chinese, Charles Dickens, Jews, Hanukkah, Christians, Germans and Basil Fawlty all lumped together? No wonder you’re in trouble, you fucking moron! Stick to the obscure corners of jazz and baseball like you’re supposed to and Bob’s your uncle, everything’s okey-dokey because nobody gives a shit about that stuff. But nooo, you had to get all fired up and write something high-minded with ‘social significance’ at this time of the year. And now look where you are, with no goddamn paddle in sight!”
Meanwhile, back on Earth, Anna continued to fiddle around on the site, installing some back-up plug-ins and an updated version of Word Press and other cookies or tarts or whatever-the-fuck they’re called. The warning message disappeared, but the post and comments seemed lost forever. It was creepy, eerie, as though someone had turned back the clock a few days. But, but… Christmas had come and gone, hadn’t it? I’m sure I remember having a few tastes, eating some turkey and opening a few presents…..
“Who you gonna call? – Ghostbusters!!”
At this point, I still had one possible ace up my sleeve, and I reached for it. I called a good friend who I won’t name because he’s the humble, retiring type and may not want to be identified, let’s just call him “X”. He’s a technological genius and the administrator of my site, having created the blog for me as a kind of new toy/gift several years ago, without me asking him to or even knowing. One day he just emailed me with the password and said, “Go, have fun… write”. Unlike me, X actually knows how the nuts and bolts of the thing work, I just write this shit. Anyway, he’d been completely aware of the problem for about two days, had been contacted by the people at Google and had spent about eight hours working to fix it. Now I felt really bad, not just anxious but guilty. I said as much, but he told me not to worry and explained the situation. He hosts about a dozen sites, including mine and several of his own, all connected to the same server. As soon as Google detected there was a problem, he was able to determine that one of these sites – not mine – had been hacked, and that Google shut down all of the host-connected ones as a security precaution.
When the problem had been fixed and all the sites had been checked and backed up, Google restored them all, rolled back to December 19th. X assured me it had nothing to do with my site or that particular Christmas post or anything I’d written, it had been a general “umbrella” hack, which happens from time to time, obviously more often than we’d like. We were kind of tripping over each other apologizing for stuff that wasn’t our fault and I thanked him profusely. I felt a great relief that it wasn’t as nefarious or personal as I’d feared and felt sheepish about all the crazy, paranoid things I’d thought. “Wallace, you’re such an over-reacting candy-ass“. It just goes to show though, that in this day and age, it doesn’t take much to turn you into a drooling conspiracy theorist. X told me things would be back to normal soon and to re-post the Christmas piece if possible, he’d missed it and looked forward to reading it.
X was as good as his word, things on the site are now back to normal, but I was still faced with the problem of how to re-post the piece. I had printed a hard copy and one option was to manually re-type it onto the site. This seemed rather primitive and labour-intensive, but Anna, who’s much better than me, volunteered to do this. I told her to hold off, thinking there had to be a better way and still not entirely convinced I was out of the woods, cyber-safety-wise. I told a tech-savvy colleague of mine about this and he said he had optical character recognition (OCR) software on his computer which would help. I could simply scan the hard copy to my computer as a pdf file, email it to him and he could use the OCR to convert it to a usable Word document, which he could email back to me. He did so and it worked. All I had to do was some small spacing and grammar editing, then copy and paste it to my blog site.
So, as Shakespeare once almost said, “All’s swell that ends swell”. I can now re-post the Merry Christmas piece, but before doing so I thought I should write this cautionary tale, reassuring everyone that visiting my site is safe again and apologizing to anyone who may have been alarmed about their own cyber-security because of this fiasco, that all now seems well. And also to apologize to those subscribers who have already received that earlier post and will receive it again when I re-publish it. Sorry about that, that’s what God invented the delete button for.
Cheers and Happy New Year.
© 2014 – 2015, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.