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The sharks of the Internet

J.F. Rice | Sept. 7, 2015
That’s what hackers are — they should be feared, but our fears are completely out of proportion.

basking shark
Credit: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

My company’s CEO called me in a panic the other day.

“I think my iPhone may have been hacked,” he said, as I squinted myopically at the clock trying to see what time it was. 7:15 a.m. — time to get up anyway, I thought.

“What makes you think it’s been hacked?” I asked, trying to get my bearings. What day was today? I thought I had a meeting later that morning, but this was no time to get distracted, so I focused my attention on the CEO’s voice.

“It’s been getting really slow over the last week or two,” he said, “and sometimes it just freezes up.”

Well, that’s a sure sign of a hacker, I thought: a slow mobile device. I guess there must be armies of hackers all around us. I asked if there was any other strange behavior.

“No, but it worked fine before a couple weeks ago” he replied.

By now, I was fully awake and realizing I needed to get off this call and get to work. “Call the IT guy,” I said, “and have him troubleshoot the problem.” I told him I didn’t think it was a hack attack, just another glitch in the software. I hate to make assumptions, but this didn’t sound like the symptoms of a compromise. There are many possible causes for slowdowns and freezes, and at least on iPhones, hackers do not top the list — especially since I have many layers of security in place, including mobile device management (MDM), which gives me control over the device’s security settings, and application reputation monitoring, which alerts me if someone installs a dangerous app.

I found out later that the cause of the problem was an unreliable operating system release that had been installed on the CEO’s phone. That particular version had a known bug that caused it to run out of resources over time, slowing to a crawl and eventually freezing. My CEO was relieved that we weren’t under attack. I was left feeling puzzled and a little bit annoyed. I mean, it's hard enough to educate people at my office about real-world security threats and make them aware enough to avoid clicking dangerous links and attachments. Misconceptions and misplaced fears of Hollywood-style uber-hackers just get in the way and distract people like my CEO from what they should really be paying attention to.

Why in the world would anyone jump to the conclusion that unusual software behavior was being caused by hackers? How often do any of us actually get hacked? And when we do, is it that noticeable?


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