another excerpt from the book I'm writing on technology, terrorism, and
time at DHS, tentatively titled "Skating on Stilts." (If you want to
read the excerpts in a more coherent fashion, try the categories on the
right labeled "Excerpts from the book." I'm afraid I can't fix the bug
in TypePad that prevents me from putting them in the category in
reverse-chronological order.) Comments and factual quibbles
are welcome, either in the comments section or by email:
email@example.com. If you're dying to order the book, send
mail to the same address. I'm still looking for an agent and a
publisher, so feel free to make recommendations on that score too.
even years after 9/11, we had mounted an effective response to the challenge posed by the exponential growth of international travel. Our procedures weren't airtight, of course; they never had been. But we weren't flying blind either, making decisions on thirty seconds of chat and intuition. It hadn't been easy, but at least everyone agreed that the old system had failed disastrously on 9/11. No one doubted why we wanted to do more.
The challenge posed by computer security was different. There had been no dramatic meltdown. Most people still scoffed at the idea that the exponential growth of information technology revolution could lead to disaster.
Yet for some of us, losses from the information technology revolution are already greater than the gains.
Just ask Howard Crank’s widow.
Howard Crank lived a quiet life that revolved around his modest California duplex. He was 73 years old, after all, and he had lost both legs above the knee to diabetes. His wife’s health was not good. He was living on his Air Force veteran's pension. But he could afford a computer, and he loved it. It helped him find old Vietnam buddies and research new charities to add to the three dozen he already supported. He might be halfway to housebound, but the new technology was a godsend. Thanks to Moore’s Law and the Internet, the whole world was at his doorstep.
The Internet, it appears, is how he discovered that he’d won $715 thousand in a Spanish lottery. Money was tight on an Air Force pension, so this was amazing news. Of course, it turned out that there were transfer taxes for him to pay before the winnings could be sent to him. It grew expensive, but his share of the lottery was also growing – to $115 million.
Howard Crank’s life savings were $90 thousand. Bit by bit, he sent it all.
It wasn’t enough. He got calls from Spain, explaining the hassles and delays. He mortgaged his home and sent the proceeds. More calls. When he wondered aloud whether he’d ever see the money, the caller asked him to have faith. They prayed together.
A few weeks later, he took out a second loan on the house. He maxed out two credit cards. All the money, perhaps $300 thousand in all, went to Spain. It was still not enough to break his lottery winnings free. He asked his stepdaughter for $40 thousand. He didn't want to explain why.
She thought that was odd. So when he was hospitalized a few weeks later with a broken leg, she checked his financial records. She found that Howard Crank had ruined himself and his wife in an apparent Internet hustle. The Spanish scam artists disappeared without a trace. Crank died of a heart attack before he could explain how it happened.
“I think he probably knew it was a fraud at the end,” his stepdaughter told me. “But he was hoping against hope. He’d sent them so much money already, and they were so convincing. But by the end he’d lost his zest for life. He was so desperate.”
Desperate he should have been. He had not just squandered his own assets. His 79-year-old widow will lose her home and likely be forced into bankruptcy by the debts he left behind.