We have once again reached that time of the year when hearts beat a bit faster, the moon glows a little brighter, the nights seem a bit darker and tooth aches will reach an all time high. The season of Halloween is upon us as the festivities of October 31st fall quaintly on this coming Friday night. As costumed ghouls of all ages, shapes and sizes roam the streets, shopping malls and nightclubs celebrating this night of fright with spooky spirited fun and sometimes memorable embarrassment, lots of real specters wander through our world that could not be depicted with any holiday outfit – no matter what the cost. Listening and reading the news each day should give us more than enough evidence to leave us frightened and refusing to walk outside our door or leave our cozy beds. On top of disease, crime, violence, threatening weather, objects falling from space, earthquakes and freak accidents, we now have to fear the world’s darkest and scariest place – the Internet – filled with its own species of sharks and piranha, but in the spirit of Halloween, demons, ghouls and monsters – which are out to devour our very identity and ruin our lives in minutes.
Many people around this country will spend time during this Halloween week deciding on the best costume to wear, how shocking to be and moreover how to be the most frightening while establishing a long term, memorable effect. In 1984, “A Nightmare on Elm Street“, a very popular, now classic (terrible to some) horror film was released and immediately injected fear into a large percentage of young minds around the country. We were introduced to a new type of monster – Freddy Kruger – who became very real to many because the weapon of his existence was very tangible to some. He was an invader of your mind – an attacker armed with measure of fear that could be unleashed at our most vulnerable moment – he was a killer who kept many from falling asleep. He made many during this time period truly feel that if they had their choice, they would rather die than be exposed to his type of evil. The film’s writer and director Wes Craven has said he was inspired by stories once published in Los Angeles Times describing a number of people dying in their sleep after each had reported recurring nightmares. Who really knows – were they were killed by their own overwhelming fears? Decades seeing Kruger’s memorable face certainly confirms how much power fear can wield.
Now, thirty years later, I can spend hours drawing parallels and comparisons of people, places and things that scared us then and what scares us now. There is so much going on in our physical world it is really hard to know where to get started. Scanning over the fear saturated news items of the week, I came across an article which examined a recent Gallup poll which found that “almost 70% of Americans fear cybercrime more than being killed.” The statement jumped off the screen and caught my attention immediately prompting my brain to begin churning out thoughts and opinions faster than it had in a very long time. I first thought, “Really? Has the American public finally swallowed the familiar pill of fear and paranoia that the media and our government has been working so hard to convince is to be digested as undisputed truth? Would an average American rather take a bullet in the chest during a burglary in their home, or be the victim of a gruesome serial killer-type death than find out that their bank account has just been cleaned out and private information stolen by a group of hackers?” I began to feel very old, out of touch and maybe a bit naive. This worrisome cough began to make me feel concerned as I pondered, “Is it true? Is cybercrime the new murder-the new Nightmare on Elm Street?”
The article noted that this information was generated from information given by 1,000 people. So, when you calculate – knowing the percentages – approximately 700 people are truly more frightened of cybercrime than murder – and as the article further clarified – most other crimes and terrible acts of violence. As I read on and my mouth hung open, the other crimes which have slipped down the list of concern include, “burglary, having a car stolen, sexual assault” and most surprising of all “having your child physically harmed at school.” The Gallup poll states that those questioned were from all over the United States and detailed that 69 percent worry that hackers will steal their credit card information and 62 percent have a fear their personal computer or smartphone will be attacked by cyber criminals. This quickly took me back to when I was a child when those formulated images of the bogey man or the monster under my bed were far too much for my tiny mind and heart to bare. Honestly, at the time, the thought of being held in the grip of either creature was far more frightening than death.
Over the past few years, hackers have graduated – in the public mind – from individualized pranksters with too much time and smarts on their hands to organized, highly intelligent, extremely motivated, super villains that feed on precious data to survive and grow. Two or three decades ago data was something that only concerned engineers and technologists within the “scientific and electronic realm.” This was a world we never touched or saw unless we were visiting our local science museum. Now, the exhibits, prototypes, and theories have quickly become an important extension of who we are and how we live. The data that once hovered above us and through wires across our office floors in a mystical existence now intertwine the fabric of our society and human functionality. When the data is breached, stolen, compromised, shared, destroyed, or copied it leaves the door to your home unlocked and open, it publishes your bank account number in large, bold print in the Sunday newspaper, and places your new-born baby in the lion’s den.
When the reality of an individual’s global vulnerability takes hold of their mind, it logically will become very overwhelming very quickly. Each day the public is forced to think about this reality at an increasing rate and heightened level. We hear the stories each day. The media surveys the damage and confirms the odds. The article states that the United States Department of Homeland Security (USDHS) has estimated that an excess of 1,000 American-based businesses have been attacked by cyber criminals. Quickly calculating the figures quoted throughout every cybercrime and hacker article I’ve read, researched and commented on over the past year leads me to believe that the data and privacy of potentially millions of individuals has been compromised. A recent study released by Intel Security and the Center for Strategic and International studies found that these crimes have an annual cost of approximately $100 billion. Like no other time in history, today’s hackers and cybercriminals are as frightening to most adults as that bogey man under your bed was when you were a kid.
With all the news, statistics, and studies showing the core of fright and fear in today’s society, it may be worth the investment for several technologists, security experts and Hollywood directors to join forces and produce a truly scary film to be ready for next Halloween. Based on all the financial numbers, calculations of fraudulent activities, private data loss and amount of personal devastation, the reality of such horror would have any person – who has surfed the web, used a cell phone, purchased with a credit card or opened a social media account – screaming in terror with head in hands throughout the entire feature. During this Halloween season, we may need to look about and evaluate what truly scares us about the world today and compare it to what we truly feared in past years. The statistics and numbers given here should not only raise an eyebrow or two, but should make us think about our sense of security and how hard we work to look after the things we have so much fear of losing.
If this new film could be released on Friday – Halloween night – with the goal to truly fry the nerves of the audience, it should be called “Nightmare on Hacker Street – The Data Breach” where Freddy returns – not as a serial killer with fingers armed with razors, but a highly motivated, technically savvy hacker armed with a laptop and a tireless appetite for money, opportunity and criminal satisfaction. Of course this movie does not exist and may be too traumatic for many to see, but we should all realize that we don’t need a modern horror movie to confirm reality. This powerful new villain does exist not only in our nightmares but in the bright hours of day while we are wide awake and living our busy lives. He has figuratively walked into our room while we sleep – but chose not to hide under our bed. He wants to follow us around all day long. He wants us to live a real horror story. Not only on Halloween, but all year long.
He wants us to admit we are scared – really scared.