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Commentary & Opinion

David Nightingale: Pickpockets 2015

In the last few weeks I have been issued a new credit card, because someone else has begun to use the old number -- apparently to order pizzas from Dominos and to buy a $750 item from a company I've never heard of.

Fortunately my credit card company monitors spending habits and denied the thief's charges.

Also, I received a telephone call from California (caller ID) from someone who said "Hi grandpa -- this is your oldest grandson. Can you help me?" My grandson is indeed travelling, and so, because a red flag had come up in my mind I asked "g'son, what are you doing in California?" "Oh, that must be the calling card" he said. "G'son, tell me, what's your name?" At that, the caller hung up.

Now there's nothing world-shaking here, and everyone deals with such ongoing attempted trickery. Hacking and scamming are now part of our everyday lives. Multiply-addressed emails arrive, asking you to click on a link, and official-looking documents come in the snail mail -- I once received a document under the colored insignia of my bank, and took it down to the bank where they verified there had been no such mailing from them.

We read that, in Dickensian days, one could barely walk down a city street without being accosted by 'Artful Dodgers', as in Charles Dickens' "Oliver Twist".

Returning to the credit card -- the 2nd replacement in as many years because it's happened twice -- I now wonder: should I continue to buy gas and groceries with it? To avoid the dangers, perhaps I should return to the relative safety of cash?

If one wants to be a cynic, one must accept that there's no limit in our lives, and there really never has been: parking meters may run fast/ the gas may be diluted with paraffin/ the hospital bill may be padded/ organic may actually be inorganic/ the automobile repair may be superfluous-but-who's-to-know, and so on -- and not only is trust a rare commodity but, again for the cynic, it's never been otherwise. A characteristic of animals is to steal -- just watch dogs fighting over a piece of meat -- and it's absolutely in the human animal, as we have seen in the recent Volkswagen example where millions of people have been lied to by one of the world's most respected industrial giants. It may be that trust and honest dealings can only be found in family, close friends, and team-mates, or those involved in a common endeavor. (Again, the cynic will claim that not even that is reliable.)

So, what a world! What do we do? How do we live?

Pope Francis (whom I admire not just because he was a chemical technologist, bouncer and janitor who also taught literature and psychology [ref.1]) ), but for his decency, values and courage, might say that this is where religion comes in. All well and good; however, very many people practise honest and considerate lives without falling back on any of the world's organized -- or even disorganized -- religions.

Aside from a society disintegrating into some kind of a lawless madness, a rampant free-for-all, it seems that the only thing to do is to keep on tightening systems. China hacks our satellite control, we hack theirs; the pickpockets proliferate, telephoning us from their databases containing victims' incomes, ages, and so on, and we retaliate with ever-upgraded defenses. My new credit card comes now with a 'chip', which is meant to provide an extra level of security; bank accounts now demand higher and higher security details -- numbers, codes, name of grandmother's first dog, significant-other's shoe size, and so on.

Finally, it seems to me as I now hesitantly begin to use my new credit card that, whereas in Dickensian times we could avoid the city streets, this ever-tightening of systems is the only option we now have -- in the presumably infinitely-lasting, ever more complex, cyber battle.

1. From Wikipedia.

Dr. David Nightingale is Professor Emeritus of Physics at the State University of New York at New Paltz and is the co-author of the text, A Short Course in General Relativity.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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