I live in a comfortable and quiet west-side Madison neighborhood, the kind the city sometimes uses to advertise how great it is to live here. But a few weeks ago, I began to notice something odd and disturbing: It seemed that most of my neighbors and friends were a little, how shall we say it, laissez-faire about their home security.
Every day, their front, porch and garage doors were as open as a Wal-Mart at 5 a.m. on Black Friday. All those SUVs and Honda Priuses? Always parked, with at least one door unlocked, right there in the driveway.
So I thought I'd do them a favor, teach them a lesson. One evening, I walked into their houses through those open porch doors and started grabbing utility bills, spare cash, computer hard drives and credit card statements. I scrabbled through the cupholder armrests and glove compartments of their cars and discovered that people keep a surprisingly large amount of change -- and expensive personal electronics -- just lying around in their cars.
When I was done, I went home, dumped my new stash in the living room, and tweeted to everyone about what I'd done. In a deft 140 characters, I told them that basically, they were asking for it, and I'd be happy to give back all the things I'd taken as soon as they invested in some better home and car security measures. If they refused, I was putting all their possessions up on Craigslist.
It was strange -- their reaction really surprised me. I couldn't understand why none of them were grateful, or why most of them called the cops. What total bastards.
None of these things actually happened, but they serve as an apt parallel to the shenanigans the hacking group LulzSec has allegedly inflicted on the gaming universe over the past couple of months. Beginning, allegedly, with the takedown of Sony's PlayStation Network, an act which resulted in millions of gamers' personal and credit card information being exposed, the group has merrily hacked its way through anything it can get its code-breaking fingers on, nailing the network servers of publishers Codemasters (Dirt 3) and Bethesda (Brink) and developer Epic (Gears of War). In every case, users' personal and/or financial data has been placed at risk. In every case, a blithe tweet from @LulzSec has followed shortly after the hack, claiming responsibility and making demands that the group's top hat logo appear in a game.
It sounds ever so Hollywood, but this isn't Hackers starring a pre-supermarket tabloid Angelina Jolie -- this is theft and extortion. You can argue that LulzSec, or whomever's actually responsible for this latest bout of rampant hackery, is doing us all a favor by exploding the universally shared myth that Internet security actually exists, that when we tap in our credit-card numbers to download that copy of Fat Princess the information will never be seen by anyone but us and the merchant. Think you're safe? You're not. And by the way, you're asking for it.
Like 70+ million other gamers, I'm not happy that Sony apparently had little no security measures in place to protect its network users from an attack like this, but it's not like I'm thrilled to know that a group of brainiacs is potentially using my Mastercard digits to make a point in a high-stakes game of network-security chicken.
The upshot of these attacks is twofold: Companies are now forced to spend stacks of dollars bolstering their security networks, cash that could conceivably gone to financing the next big game project. Gamers, in addition to having to play password roulette for the fifteenth time this year, are a lot less likely to use personal and financial info and spend cash in gaming's online spaces, for fear their credit card statements are going to start including $35 charges at the Hot Topic in Kalamazaoo. Let's not even discuss the casual crowd, who are probably left cowering in their Farmville barns.
Just like the digital pirates who merrily siphoned millions of dollars away from publishers and developers under the mistaken impression that they were doing no harm, the hackers' scorched earth tactics aren't doing us any good either. They're fostering a culture of pervasive mistrust and fear, and that's something even the tightest network security system in the world can't fix.