Taylor: Hidden codes in my operating system

If MIT’s massively protected archives can get hacked by unauthorized users, no one’s computer is safe.

A spate of news items about computer hackers crossed my screen recently. In the U.S., apparently, there’s a “massive, sustained cyber-espionage campaign against American businesses and institutions.”

So says the 2013 National Intelligence Estimate. Chinese hackers have targeted the “energy, finance, information technology, aerospace and automotive” industries.

Someone gained access to e-mails between former presidents George W. and George H.W. Bush. There was no suggestion that any intelligence was threatened.

The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal both admitted that their computers had been hacked.

Here in Canada, naval officer Jeffrey Delisle was sentenced to 18 years in prison for selling military secrets to the Russians. No one knows what information he actually turned over. It could have been anything from a list of the CIA’s undercover agents in Iran to the attack capabilities of Canada’s fleet of aging Sea-King helicopters.

And somewhere in all that came news of the funeral of Aaron Swartz, revered in the hacker community for managing to penetrate MIT’s massively protected archives and download 4.8 million articles.

Obviously, if all of these can get hacked by unauthorized users, no one’s computer is safe.

Passwords offer only puny protection. Encryption, only temporary protection. Anti-virus software—just a minor speed bump on someone’s way into your hard disk.

And once in, it takes only seconds to implant a few lines of code. You might never know that your computer now sends a copy of everything you do, or write, to a third party somewhere else.

Fortunately, no one has yet managed to hack into the human brain.

Sudden horrible thought—maybe someone has.

Isn’t that the purpose of raising children within a social culture? To embed some important precepts, some lines of coded instruction that will kick in at various times during their lives and help them know what to do?

In that sense, we’ve all been programmed. By our parents, our teachers, our mentors. While our brains were still soft and malleable, we learned—to a greater or lesser extent—to distinguish right from wrong. To evaluate evidence. To apply critical analysis to our experiences.

That “software” runs even when we’re unaware of it.

Which is why I feel compelled to hold the door for women who are younger and fitter than I am, for example. Why I need to finish everything on my plate. Why I hate going into debt. Why I fuss over language.

Sometimes I can still hear my mother gently correcting my word choices.

I also realize that I’ve had to de-bug—sometimes painfully—a few of those lines of operating instructions. Especially the ones about women’s roles, gays and lesbians, individualism.

Yes, and about a vengeful God who has to be bought off with human sacrifices.

Not that everything I was taught was wrong. Far from it. The people who programmed me provided the best software they could. They coded a strong foundation of ethics and morals. I shall always be grateful.

But I recognize that there are hidden factors shaping me that I had little to do with.