Growing signs of paranoia in an overcautious Net world

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 September, 2005, 12:00am


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So much for business at the speed of thought - or even at a crawl. I recently tried to transfer money online from one bank account I have listed with PayPal to another.

First, I discovered, I needed to move the money into my separate PayPal account - there was no shortcut. In fact, as it turned out, a dead end lay ahead.

After a week of processing, the transaction finally stalled - the word 'failed' appeared on my PayPal account, which then locked. When I rang PayPal customer care a young grunt solemnly told me that, quite possibly, someone had tried to illegally access my money.

Laughing hysterically, I told the grunt that the someone in question was me: the security algorithm or cop had thwarted the wrong individual. The grunt assured me that it had not. I was, it seemed, guilty of trying to rob myself like a character in a novel by that chronicler of the grotesque, Franz Kafka.

The grunt wound up saying that he could not help me. I asked to speak to his manager who then made me undergo a series of security checks to prove I was David Wilson rather than an international money shark with Russian mafia connections. Eleven days on, at the time of writing this, the transaction is still 'processing'.

Perhaps, given that my British ATM card has expired and I hang out in the Asia-Pacific region, I am doomed. From now on, I may only be able to look at my money via the internet and not touch it.

I feel like Tantalus, the classical dude who riled the gods and was sentenced to stand for eternity under a tree laden with luscious fruit he could never quite grasp. Thanks, PayPal.

Sure, I understand that PayPal has to be careful because of phishing: the practice of luring the trusting to fake websites and requesting private data. The scam sites look increasingly authentic - one I explored after receiving an

e-mail telling me I need to supply my username and password looked more eBay than eBay.

Nonetheless, it is my money. PayPal's approach strikes me as overcautious: a criticism applicable to the tech world at large. The depth of the paranoia came home to me when I received an e-mail from a legitimate public relations source warning me about 'industrial size' Trojan horse attacks.

The tone of the warning darkened: 'Typically these attacks are perpetrated by loosely organised crime groups with specialists in web application vulnerabilities, zombie networks, credential monetisation, but their sophistication and organisation continues to grow.'

Zombies, monetisation, sophistication ... run for your lives!

Or keep things in perspective. The pitch hit me shortly before acts of terror were committed not by shadows, but sociopaths equipped with weaponry far more potent than a mere malicious program. I mean the first wave of London bombings.

Admittedly, online sharks with teeth abound however much we are inclined to forget it - and we try. Two recent Forrester Research surveys show the need for banks to help educate and protect customers in online banking transactions. We are supposedly complacent about security threats like phishing and keystroke logging - we expect banks to make the problem go away.

Even so, mainly, the log-on/log-off day-to-day machinations of the modern office are incredibly tame. Even spyware, that bugbear which, in some forms, can perform keystroke logging is a cinch to eradicate - you just download the software designed to nuke the stuff and blow it away. If your computer is infested with spyware, that just means you are complacent. You almost deserve to be pried upon.

But nobody deserves to be subjected to the widespread scaremongering that has two causes. The first is financial - the media benefits from spreading anxiety because, like sex, fear sells. The second is financial - security firms need us to stay scared and keep buying and updating the defences they market.

Meanwhile, we may become distracted and miss the 'real story'. The key threat to every new economy drone and go-getter is not digital phantoms, but dodgy workplace practices. Increasingly, we are all 'perma-temps' who can be laid off without warning, if we were ever contractually hired.

As for pay - many bosses just expect their workers to grind and graft on the same wage they received the previous century, only for longer. The idea of overtime seems to be petering out.

In our quietly ferocious meritocracy, you are judged purely on what you can do. Cannot perform? Then get out.

This climate deserves at least as much attention as the digital devilry that fixates us. Now, excuse me, I must access my PayPal account and see whether I am still viewed as a demon. If the word 'processing' again turns to 'failed', that means my cash is effectively locked in a safe with no code. With security like that, I think I would rather face anarchy.