For the first time in a while, I found myself this week on a transcontinental flight without WiFi access or in-flight television. I generally try to avoid being electronically sequestered for any amount of time, especially on a football Sunday, so I couldn't help but feel it was a punishment of sorts -- at least at first.
But as someone who makes a living being paranoid about information security, I forced myself to think about the positives (in between two newspapers, a magazine and a John Grisham novel), and was struck by how even I am far too willing to sacrifice my personal information security on the altar of convenience -- in this instance for Internet access and the alleviation of boredom on a long flight.
So what should we give up when getting online a mile high?
1. Online shopping: In addition to being a potential money pit, online shopping on a public Internet connection might allow a fellow traveler to invade your cyber space and turn your laptop into a transmitter of personally identifying information (PII).
2. Online banking: Like online shopping, online banking carries the risk of exposing your data to potential scam artists -- and, unlike one credit card number, online banking can expose everything from your checking account to your retirement savings to would-be thieves.
3. Emailing: Though you can hardly peek at a screen on a WiFi-enabled flight without seeing someone's Inbox, the same people who might love your financial information might well settle for phishing or spear-phishing you in order to hijack your contact list or compromise your computer and turn it into yet another botnet or spam enabler.
4. Social media: Not being a Facebook devotee, I am not as subject to social networking withdrawal as so many others I know. But without the ability to "check in" at airports on Foursquare or Facebook, and being geo-tagged on Twitter and Instagram, being offline while on the road means you're not broadcasting to frenemies that you're not at home (think burglars), or where you might be found (think stalkers).
5. Getting Your Devices Out At All: If you can't use it, you tend to leave it alone -- my cell phone, for instance, stayed safely tucked in my pocket for the duration of the flight, though I did crack open my sequestered laptop. Without the ability to connect to the wider world, many people simply leave their computers (iPads, tablets, etc.) packed in the overhead bin (and maybe that's not such a bad thing). After all, every bathroom trip and leg-stretching walkabout -- especially on a dimly-lit plane full of sleeping people -- leaves one's laptop readily accessible to the ill-intentioned and even more personal and financial information exposed to either random snoops or light-fingered thieves.
Without the ability to log on this time, my limited laptop use mitigated the risk of my leaving it in the seatback pocket, or tucked away between two seats, where someone might have grabbed it and possibly found a way to crack my code -- gaining access to my most meaningful contacts or grabbing sufficient morsels of information to allow them to convince my contacts or financial institutions that they were me.
But while my enforced disconnection made me reflect upon how, even for me, boredom and convenience sometimes overwhelm my hard-earned knowledge about the perils of a cybercrime, I also had the opportunity to think about all the other ways we blindly trust that our information will stay private in order to take advantage of modern conveniences -- like paying with a credit card at a doctor's office, using a debit card at the grocery store, handing over our plastic to waiters at our favorite restaurants, reading off those sixteen digits when ordering take-out, leaving car registrations in the glove box during an oil change, or handing over keys to a parking attendant.
Can we ever really be sure they have no desire to learn more about us than we deem appropriate? Unfortunately, the answer is a resounding no. In that way, it's a bit like flying -- you have to sit back, trust the system, and hope for the best.