In my line of work and field of nerdery, I often encounter people who need my help because they just don’t understand computers. I guess normally that’s not really a big deal – I mean my company does pay me to take care of all of our technical stuff after all. A user forgot a password? No problem. RAID array fail? Hand me my tools and that superhero cape in the corner there, I’m on the case. It’s all sanctioned stuff. It’s the other problems that people come to me with, usually about their personal and home tech causing “issues” that give me worry.
Now I put the quotes around “issues” because generally no one would really describe them that way – usually all that’s required is a change in settings to get things the way they need to be. I have no problem walking them through stuff like this. The first few times that is. After answering similar questions from the same people about the same problems, or hearing how they downloaded the same virus from the same fake email address I’ve warned them about a dozen times, that’s when I get upset. Is it an inability to learn basic things? Well, not exactly. It’s more a refusal to try and understand the machines that manage their lives. We live in a time when computers help govern pretty much everything we do, be it something as simple as sending an e-mail to automating manufacturing sites. It’s engrained in our cultural and social DNA. How many of you could go a week without using email? Facebook? The internet? I doubt it would be more than a handful of you. And with every additional piece of our lives ruled by the web, there’s an additional security hole to be plugged. People getting hacked for various things are always present in the news cycle. So why is it that people refuse to try and learn more about computers? I don’t understand it myself, but it can sometimes contribute to serious problems.
I read a story today about computer repairman rigging customers’ machines to take video and pictures (in bathrooms and showers) through webcams without their consent. His setup, as in what he told customers to convince them to move their machines into the bathroom, should have thrown up red flags for most people. The culprit, Trevor Harwell of Southern California, installed software on his customers’ Macbooks to take control of their embedded webcams. This software gave the users fake error messages, telling them to “fix their internal sensor soon,” according to Sgt. Andrew Goodrich of the Fullerton Police. Alright, a standard user may be justified in thinking that there is in fact a generic “internal sensor” in their device. That’s fair. But the second message should have signaled alarms to anyone: “try putting your laptop near hot steam for several minutes to clean the sensor.” So what did this error message prompt users to do? Report suspicious activity? Take it to a Mac Store or Genius Bar? Unfortunately, it prompted many of them to take their computers into the bathroom without question while they showered to get the prescribed steam to fix the problem.