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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

The computer hackers seem to be winning

Across the Internet, computer users are talking about

Across the Internet, computer users are talking about changes small and large -- from strengthening passwords and considering encryption to ditching cellphones and using cash over credit cards -- after whistle-blower Edward Snowden leaked secrets about a U.S. mass surveillance program. Credit: iStock

Remember the good ol' days of modern technology when all we worried about was Wi-Fi sharing at Starbucks and somebody stealing our iPhones?

Now it's our very identities being taken in weekly data breaches and software hacks that get ever more creative -- and worrisome.

One particularly chilling hack was revealed a few days ago when news broke that two security researchers had succeeded in taking control remotely of a Jeep Cherokee traveling 70 mph on a St. Louis highway. The driver, a Wired magazine writer, was in on the hack. That made it no less scary.

The hackers turned on the air conditioning, changed radio stations, started the windshield wipers, and cut the accelerator. Later, they took out the brakes and the Jeep slid into a roadside ditch.

They were 10 miles away, on a laptop in one of their homes.

The writer reported being frantic as he lost power. One researcher said he, too, was freaked out and told The New York Times, "I shouldn't be able to do this."

He's right. But he can. Because he and his partner figured out how to wirelessly tap into the computer system that enables the Jeep's navigation, entertainment, phone calls and Wi-Fi. They estimate that 471,000 vehicles with the same system also are vulnerable.

Thankfully, they shared their results with Chrysler, which on Friday recalled 1.4 million vehicles that might be vulnerable to receive software patches. The automaker also said it had taken its own steps to block such hacks.

In hindsight, it seemed inevitable once cars became virtual smartphones. We've been rushing headlong to get interconnected with everyone everywhere at every moment. And while that truly is a remarkable thing with many benefits, we're discovering the dark side of interconnectedness: The world is one big electronic playground -- but not everybody plays nice.

A 2014 study found nearly half of American adults had been hacked in the previous 12 months. Among the companies affected: Snapchat, Michaels, Neiman Marcus, AOL, eBay, Anthem, Chick-fil-A, Sony, Staples, Kmart, Dairy Queen, Home Depot and JPMorgan Chase.

There's even hacking in baseball: The St. Louis Cardinals allegedly stole scouting information from the Houston Astros.

The study doesn't include 21 million people whose Social Security numbers and personal info were exposed when federal government computers were hacked. Now the feds want encryption keys from Internet providers to help them electronically track terrorists. Great. Because once the feds have them, there's no way those encryption keys will be stolen, right?

It feels like a high-tech arms race, and the bad guys are winning. It reminds me of the drug wars in elite sports, where the cheaters were always one step ahead of the testers. You could argue that at least the hackers are forcing us to fix our weak links. But we need to be better at eliminating our vulnerabilities from the start.

Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) reports nearly every new car by 16 major automakers has wireless technology that could be vulnerable to hacking. But only two said they had in place security to stop hackers.

The sky's the limit, apparently. That's not a good thing.

Legislation by Markey and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) would establish federal standards to protect cars from being hacked. That's a start.

But I can't help but think about all we could accomplish if we instead hired all those hackers and put their talents to good uses that would truly benefit society -- like hacking the Chinese and Russians.

Michael Dobie is a member of the Newsday editorial board.