Filler: Target breach shows fragile bargain with technology

Target announced that 40 million of its customers

Target announced that 40 million of its customers may have had their credit card account information compromised following a security breach during the busiest shopping week of the year. (Dec. 19, 2013) (Credit: AP)

Lane Filler

Portrait of Newsday editorial board member Lane Filler Lane Filler

Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.

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When my wife informed me that Target had been the target of a data breach during the holiday season and we might be among the 164 gazillion people affected, my instinctive response was, "We're fine. We don't shop at Target much."

In fact, she shops at Target so much that our house is being overrun with plastic bags from the store. I use them as liners in trash cans, as receptacles every time I walk the dog and as rain hats whenever I'm feeling jaunty, but still the piles grow.

Nonetheless, when any situation rears its head that demands effort, I go to denial. Puddles on the floor are caused by humidity, not roof leaks. The bats that flew in through the chimney and are now rustling through the bedclothes are more likely just big, friendly moths. And any sounds emanating from cars, including whooshes, pops, whines and kabooms, are normal, and caused by changes in the temperature, altitude, barometric pressure or radio station.

Nothing is wrong. If something were wrong, I'd have to do something. And I'm not about to go around doing things.

Besides, once I started looking into the Target issue, I came up with a simple plan to alleviate much of the danger. Social Security numbers were not released, so having people create new accounts with our identity wasn't a big worry.

This wasn't nearly so bad as two years ago, when all (and I mean all) my family's personal and banking information, along with that of practically every person who paid taxes in South Carolina over a period of years, was stolen from the state by hackers.

This time the worry was people using our current debit and credit accounts, which I addressed by changing the PINs on the few cards we might have used there. So while I wasn't willing to admit there was a potential problem, as it would have ruined my streak, I did address things.

Although not, unfortunately, to the satisfaction of my bank. And it was when I got the letter from the lovely folks there that I was reminded how extraordinarily fragile our technology-laden lives are, how little it takes to upset them and what disasters we're in for when things go badly wrong.

My bank is worried that my debit card was compromised. My bank wants me to know it is on the problem like bees on Kool-Aid. My bank sent me a new card, and canceled my old one. All I have to do is switch charges I pay automatically on that card over to the new card, by identifying every bill and contacting every business. Oh, well, if that's all . . .

This modern life works so well -- until it doesn't. I auto-pay dozens of bills on that card, monthly, quarterly and annually. And I have no idea what they all are. On the bright side, as I hunt I'm likely to find ones I should stop paying, like the "Rolling Papers of the Month Club" fee. But the idea of searching through records to find every bill that debits and contacting every company to switch to the new card fills me with sick dread.

And this is a minor problem. Imagine a major one. Imagine the Internet destroyed by attackers, the power grid out, communications down, transportation stilled. How much cash do you have? How, if you don't get and keep paper statements, would you prove you had money in the bank? How would you prove you hadn't withdrawn it after the statement was printed?

If things fell apart, how long could you feed your family?

We live in a time of extraordinary ease, fragile as cobwebs. It could all go down, be breached, or bombed, or just fail, at any time. Most of us are utterly unprepared. Most of us are unwilling to prepare.

Maybe I'm not the only one who's so good at denial.

Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.