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Editorial: Encrypting our lives against data thieves
Even as we try to protect personal data from hackers, a state agency gave it away
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“Information is all, is it not?”

— Uttered by Christoph Waltz, playing the new Bond villain in “Spectre.”

Information is indeed what makes the world go ’round in the 21st century, its flow vital in every aspect of our society, including business, government, education and news. But as with any positive force, there is a dark side when it is abused or mishandled and falls into the hands of the wrong people.

Maybe that’s why the villains for a new age aren’t the same old black-hatted, cat-stroking bad guys they once were. Now they’re thieves of information. Our information.

It was bad enough in recent years when several major retailers discovered their customer data bases had been hacked, including Target and Home Depot, compromising the financial information of millions. The companies, along with financial institutions, moved to plug the leak but the damage was done.

Even worse, Georgians now find their own government guilty of such malfeasance following the November election. The Secretary of State’s office sent out 12 discs containing the full identity information of 6 million registered voters to political parties, news organizations and other marketers who were looking only to mine names and contact information. Instead the discs contained Social Security numbers and other key data that would give an unscrupulous recipient access to financial accounts.

Secretary of State Brian Kemp acted quickly when the breach was discovered. He fired the worker guilty of the mistake and retrieved most of the discs, the others confirmed as being destroyed. But his best-laid plans hit a snag when it was learned at least one of the organizations that received the discs had copied them. So no one knows for sure if that information is secure.

Two Georgia women have filed a class action lawsuit against the elections office over the breach. Even if the damage doesn’t spread, it could reflect poorly on Kemp in any future political ambitions he may have.

It’s disturbing to think the act of voting, the very foundation of our representative democracy, could lead to the sharing of vital personal information with the wrong people. In an age when voter turnout is exceedingly low and more people are urged to register and take part, such a violation of personal privacy can only dampen that incentive.

But while upsetting, such occurrences are becoming more commonplace. South Carolina suffered a hacking in 2012 that released Social Security numbers, leading our state officials to ensure their data bases were encrypted to avoid such prying eyes.

Yet in Georgia’s case, the cyber cat burglars didn’t need to break in; Kemp’s office just handed over the info. For all the safeguards put in place by the wizards of high tech working on the government’s side, all it took was one lower-level employee to mess up and circumvent every safeguard. That’s scary.

It’s also a reminder how tenuous the security of our personal data really is. And with the Christmas shopping season underway, the risk of having our financial information floating about between computers should give us pause.

Most of us love the ease and convenience of online shopping as Cyber Monday bargains kick in over the next few days. But with that blessing comes a curse; for every CD or pair of slippers we purchase online, we spread our financial data around like seeds in the wind while criminals plot sinister new ways to catch it.

So what can we do? Short of using cash and shopping only in person, there are steps we can take to at least make it harder for the prying eyes of cyber thieves to steal our valuables (click here and here for more):

• Shop with retailers you know and check out the security measures all online sellers have in place. If you’re dealing with an unfamiliar company, use a third-party financial account like PayPal to limit how many sites on which you share your credit card info.

 Secure your digital devices with hard-to-hack passwords and keep your firewall and computer security programs up to date.

 Never open an email or attachment from an unfamiliar source that looks fishy (or in this case, phishy).

 When purchasing in person with a credit card, don’t let it out of your sight. A unscrupulous clerk could copy the numbers when the card is out of your view. If you misplace your card, report it to the card issuer immediately so your account can be blocked.

 Don’t use a Social Security number as an ID number for financial accounts.

 Don’t store sensitive information on unsecure websites or computers — a lesson secretary of states at the state and federal levels should heed.

 Don’t complete financial transactions on public computers or on a free Wi-Fi site others can access.

 Limit the number of cards you use and carry and discontinue old unused accounts.

 Shred and dispose properly of old paper documents that contain key data.

 Beware of phone scammers; never give out financial data over the phone to anyone you don’t know.

 Check your accounts and credit statements frequently and quickly report activity that looks suspicious.

Of course, none of this helps if a reputable retailer is hacked or a government agency releases our personal data. To put a stop to the latter type of exposure, we can only trust our elected officials to clamp down even tighter, at our continued insistence.

To send a letter to the editor, use this form or send to The Times editorial board includes Publisher Charlotte Atkins, General Manager Norman Baggs and Editor Keith Albertson.

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