Equifax is in the news again, but I say the whole problem could have been prevented by Wyoming-style security

Earlier this month, a Boston judge, Kenneth Salinger, refused to dismiss a lawsuit against Equifax filed on behalf of Massachusetts consumers by Maura Healey, Massachusetts Attorney General. Too bad for Equifax, but if their team had noticed our security practices in Wyoming, perhaps they could have prevented the entire debacle.

Out here, living close to the land has inspired a down-to-earth solution that other companies still have a chance to implement before their own security breaches embarrass them and compromise yet more confidential information. I’ll admit this solution surprised me when Cowboy Community Bank in Casper announced it. But it was the right way to go.

The bank, deciding to ramp up its security procedures for online banking, notified me and its other customers that we had to visit the main office to implement their latest step. Keyed to a longstanding security question, the name of my first pet, their email advised, “Please come to the bank prepared to tell us what kind of animal it was.”

That’s easy, I thought. But why do I have to visit the bank to tell them that?

“It was a gerbil,” I told the lady at customer service.

“Fine,” she said, typing something into her computer. “Name?”

“Charley.”

Turning from her monitor, she smiled. “Now for our added layer of security. To prove Charley really was your first pet, you need to bring us his corpse.”

“Uh … how much time do I have?”

“We can give you until about three this afternoon.”

I left, thinking, I’m glad I kept my parents’ house after they died, and that they buried Charley under the elm tree in the back yard.

It was a hot July day, and when I returned to the bank, the air conditioning was obviously malfunctioning. I’d been standing in line about five minutes, holding Charley’s bones in a burlap bag, when I heard a commotion at the entrance. A young woman, no older than eighteen, was struggling to drag in a tarpaulin-covered heap through the revolving door.

I took pity on her. “Hi, can I help you pull that thing into line? Here, right behind me.” As I approached the mysterious heap, a cloud of black flies buzzed around us and a sickening odor assailed my nostrils.

“My horse, Silverado.” Pushing her battered Stetson higher on her sweaty, dirt-streaked forehead, she wiped away tears with the back of her hand. “He died ten days ago.”

Grunting and choking, we dragged Silverado’s body through the lobby and over to customer service.

“Thanks—” she began, when five men, dressed in white coveralls and wearing tri-filter face masks, burst into the bank.

“All right!” the first man rapped out. “Everybody stay calm and line up against the wall.” In a panic, I was ready to drop flat on the floor behind Silverado, but then I saw “County Health Department” emblazoned on the coveralls. “Sorry, folks, but we can’t have flies and maggots in a public building.”

“Silver!” sobbed my young friend, throwing herself onto the body.

“Here,” I said, gently squeezing her shoulder. “Let’s get your old pal moved over to the wall.”

Three hours later, my face sweltering under the bulky gas mask provided by the county, I presented Charley’s remains to the lady at customer service and thought I was done.

“That’ll be five hundred dollars.”

“But … I thought online banking was free.”

“Sorry.” Her brown eyes were apologetic above the edge of her mask. “Fumigating isn’t cheap, and we have to pass along the cost.”

Now I feel really secure. If only Equifax would adopt a similar procedure, maybe we could all forget the stench of their lapse.

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The new Digital Law: They’ve passed judgment on me and taken…

We all knew it would happen; it was only a matter of time. Still, the knock on my front door yesterday startled me, and I was puzzled when confronted with the two official-looking men on my porch. Their dark blue caps were emblazoned “DP,” and small plastic name tags, also blue, informed me I was facing Pete and Joe. Had I forgotten to pay a parking ticket?

Pete was as tall as a basketball player, with a thatch of dark hair and piercing blue eyes. He flipped open his badge. “Digital Police.”

A wave of relief washed over me. “Come right in.” I pushed the screen door ajar and ushered them into my living room. “I’m so glad somebody is doing something real about Internet security,” I babbled, steering them to the couch. “When the Equifax debacle blew up, and we were all directed to the Web to check whether our identities had been compromised, I was sure that I was the only person in the world who thought that was ironic. And now—”

The two men exchanged an embarrassed glance. Joe, a stocky redhead, cleared his throat. Reaching into his pocket, he unfolded a piece of paper and handed it to me. Pete shot a quick look around the room.

I skimmed the page. “I have to appear in court tomorrow morning to defend myself on a charge of … computer incompetence?”

“Yes ma’am.” Pete was suddenly brisk. “Bring your laptop.”

The next day did not begin well. I sat at an empty table, with Pete on my left and Joe on my right. The judge’s bench loomed in front of us.

“Your Honor, I don’t own a laptop.” The judge was fifty-something, with salt-and-pepper hair and blunt features.

“Your smartphone will do.”

“Uh, I don’t have a smartphone either.”

“Look here, young lady—”

Is he for real? I thought. I’m at least five years older than he is.

“This is a serious proceeding and you are under oath. We try to be considerate; nobody expected you to haul your desktop PC into court today. Did you lose your smartphone?”

“No sir—Your Honor. I don’t own one.”

Pete flipped open his laptop and typed, “Does not own a laptop or smartphone.”

“We’ll let it pass this once. Let’s go on to the particular complaints.”

Joe rose, clutching his tablet. Following the lines on his screen with a stubby, freckled index finger, he read, “That Accused did willfully and knowingly attempt to open her inbox only to find none of her 500 messages showing, and couldn’t figure out why. Accused fell into a panic instead of realizing she should check the settings of her email program. She owed the entire resolution of the problem to her husband, who noticed that her inbox was set to display marked messages only.”

How do they know all this? Apparently that book I read, Data and Goliath, didn’t reveal even half the problem.

“’None of your messages are marked,’ Accused’s husband informed her, and she protested, ‘Yes they are; some are marked unread, others in different colors, others as answered or forwarded.’ ‘It means marked with a check mark,’ he explained.”

“Your Honor?” In response to his inquiring look, I continued, “What’s my crime? Expecting perfect logic from programmers? Failure to prevent panic? I had a lot of important back emails in my inbox, and the prospect of a bunch of lost messages and, for all I knew, an impending hard-drive crash, threw me.”

Pete’s long, smooth fingers began tapping on his keyboard. “Does not know enough to back up,” I read from his screen.

“That’s not true,” I hissed. “I just can’t back up email.”

The judge banged his gavel. “Continue with the charges.”

Joe coughed. “That Accused opened a blank fill-in form, IRS Schedule E, in a PDF program called Okular. Accused typed her husband’s information into the form, saved it and closed it. She then returned to the original blank form—of which she had kept a duplicate—and opened it, to fill in her own information. Accused was flabbergasted to find that the supposedly blank form had all her husband’s information, exactly as she had just typed it in.”

Pete began typing again.

I jumped to my feet. “Your Honor, don’t I have the constitutional right to speak in my own defense?”

“Yes; here in the Court of Digital Law, at our discretion, we may grant some limited constitutional privileges.”

“I know what you’re thinking about that mysterious Okular file: that I just forgot to “save as” before I filled it in, and ended up with a file named as “blank” that I myself had altered.” And if you were better snoopers, I thought, you’d also know that this has happened several times before, and I thought I had devised a fail-safe workaround. Therefore, I was certain which files were supposed to blank and which not.

“Of course that’s what we’re thinking,” the judge replied. “It’s only logical.”

“Well…” I struggled to compose myself. “Next, I downloaded the same form directly from irs.gov. I named it and saved it in a special folder.”

“And it was blank, of course,” Pete mumbled.

“Guess what?” I could hear my voice rising. “It was filled in. Filled in! By whom, and how? That’s what I want to know.”

A door closed quietly at the back of the room. Glancing over my shoulder, I froze: Six men in white coats stood together, still as ghosts. Did I see a straitjacket in the hands of one?

“Do you have anything to add to your defense?”

With a supreme effort, I moderated my voice. “No, of course not. And, Your Honor?”

“Yes?”

“Right after this hearing, I’m planning to get a laptop and a smartphone.”

Raising his eyebrows, the judge appeared to think a moment, then nodded briefly to the men at the back of the room. Did I hear retreating footsteps and the soft closing of a door? I didn’t dare look.

“Young lady,” the judge eyed me sternly. “Digital Law allows me three options for your case: take away your computer, take you away [with a significant glance at the back of the room], or let you off with a warning.”

I closed the courthouse door behind me with a sigh of relief. To escape further trouble, all I had to do was prevent another charge of incompetence. But how? As I thought about the task ahead, my spirits sank.

It was dusk; the sky was heavy and gray, and sleet was beginning to fall. People hurried past on the sidewalk, heads bent against the bitter, slicing wind.

A soft voice said, “Excuse me?”

I turned to find a middle-aged woman looking me in the eye. Plump and rosy-cheeked, she wore a huge ruffled apron. Her giant umbrella sheltered us both, and shone with a pure white light.

“Uh, hello.” I hesitated. Who was this?

“I’m your fairy godmother.” A faint aroma of snickerdoodles wafted through the air.

Did the men in the white coats take me away and drug me? A fairy godmother is just what I need, and can’t have.

She spoke again. “You live in Casper, Wyoming, United States, right?” The air under the umbrella was strangely calm.

“I guess so, but sometimes I feel like I’m living in Digital Purgatory.”

“I’m here to introduce you to…” Sweeping aside, she revealed a man and a woman standing in the glow of her umbrella. They looked alert and helpful. “Conrrado and Betsy.”

We shook hands.

“They are your computer angels.”

“My what?” I must be on drugs, and in a padded cell, obviously hallucinating.

“You don’t have to pay them,” my fairy godmother continued.

There was no table to steady myself against, so I braced my feet and drew a deep breath.

“They’re on staff at the Natrona County Public Library here in Casper. It’s part of their job to teach computer classes—everything from Windows and Macintosh operating systems to how to negotiate Facebook and craigslist. They can also answer your questions.”

I gasped and pinched myself.

My fairy godmother clasped me in hug of heavenly aromas. “Goodbye, dear.”

She beamed at me, and all three faded into the night.

Compose Yourself

This column was first published by the Casper (Wyoming) Star-Tribune in 2005

Good advice can teach us plenty, but first we have to accept it. I’ve spent years resisting other people’s wisdom, not realizing I was blocking my most intriguing avenues of self-discovery. But when I stopped arguing, my brain completed the circuit from someone else’s insights to my own. Then I saw more deeply into myself and discovered a better way to live.

It began several years ago when I complained to my husband about my career.

“I’m tired of my puny earning power. If I were a doctor or lawyer, my years of work would have yielded a lot more money than I’ve earned playing and teaching the cello.”

“True, but there’s one thing you haven’t tried.”

“What’s that?”

“Approach your life like you do your cello playing.”

“Huh?”

Ellis is a man of few words and he’d used them all up. I had to wait 6 months for his next installment. But it didn’t help because I was full of “yeah-buts.”

“Yabut the problem is that I chose the wrong profession.” “Yabut life isn’t anything like cello playing.”

I felt stuck, but didn’t see why. My yabuts were excuses, and as long as they stood in the way, I couldn’t understand Ellis’s advice. I’d often felt stuck when practicing the cello, and I knew what to do: try a different approach. So with “yabut” ringing in my ears, I began trying new ways of doing the same old things.

This small effort yielded large returns. For years I’d been grumping at Ellis when he got behind on household repairs and other chores. Then one day the magic words popped out of my mouth: “What can I do to make it possible for you to fix the bathroom faucet?”

He thought a minute, then replied, “Do my share of the cooking and dishwashing this weekend.”

It was easy, and far better than nagging. I was inspired by this spontaneous improvement, and began wondering what would happen if I also tried a new approach to my cello teaching.

That week one of my students commented, “When I try to play this piece using your fingerings and bowings, I feel like I’m in a straitjacket. Do I have to follow your markings?”

Fingerings and bowings are detailed instructions that reflect the teacher’s years of learning. The purpose of music lessons is to convey this wisdom. So of course I denied her request. But then my curiosity overpowered me and I added, “Okay, forget my markings and we’ll see what happens.”

I could detect neither logic nor consistency in her fingerings and bowings, but she played better. The most elusive skills improved beyond all others: flexibility, shadings in tone and mood, dramatic delivery, and pacing. I was stunned.

Ellis’s advice was working even though I still didn’t understand it. My curiosity grew. It cleared my head, shoved aside my yabuts, and filled me with a spirit of adventure.

Then one glorious day I saw his analogy between cello playing and life. They’re both strewn with wrong notes, missed entrances, off-kilter rhythms, and scratchy sounds. With practice you learn to let go of mistakes, heed your cues, find a smoother pace, and create harmony. It takes years to get it right, and nobody can teach you the most important parts.

To discover more parallels, try listening to the music of your life. As you learn to minimize the dissonance, you’ll be motivated to practice, and a talent for living will be your reward.

The music of living

Life can be like music when it’s going well: Events happen in tune, on time, and may even harmonize into a beautiful melody.

But in music, as with living, things don’t always work together the way we’d like. Bumpy passages, sour notes, or unsynchronized rhythms can damage our performance. Then it takes a while to get our confidence back.

Given that life problems range from minor—the musical equivalent of one bad practice session—to serious, say, losing your job, how are we supposed to manage?