- - Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Sony attack, courtesy of North Korean-sponsored cyberterrorists, was one of the biggest media stories to end 2014. Salacious information pulled from private emails was leaked to the press, who dutifully reported the embarrassing details of individuals’ private correspondence, not to mention various trade secrets, business plans and valuable intellectual property.

As a former newspaper reporter, I found this behavior extremely disappointing, not just because the media aided and abetted a serious crime against an American business, but also for the journalistically negligent act of burying the lead. Last year saw a series of massive data breaches to JP Morgan, Target and Home Depot, to name a few of the more prominent victims. Indeed, the most recent victim was none other than the U.S. Central Command, which had its social media accounts compromised, as well as some internal documents.

Lost in much of the reporting are the implications of these persistent attacks on Americans privacy, financial security, safety, speech and property. Contrary to analogous crimes anchored in the physical world such as Enron, or Bernie Madoff’s record-breaking Ponzi scheme, U.S. law enforcement appears helpless to address these crimes. Instead, companies such as Sony are too often left to fend for themselves, bereft of the rule of law so critical to well-functioning free markets and democracies. Media reports on these crimes should focus on the very real dangers Americans face, and the pressing need for solutions from all stakeholders to thwart cybercriminals.

The Internet is the cutting edge of the information age, but with regard to the law, in many ways it’s still the wild, wild West. There seems to be no commitment to respecting basic rights. The new reality is that clicking a button from the comfort of your living room chair can be the digital equivalent of stepping into a dark alley.

Americans, including many of the seniors I represent, are beginning to hesitate to walk down that alley. Even before malicious and sophisticated cybercells targeted companies like Sony and our U.S. military, the Internet presented enough dangers to older Americans. One wrong click could turn into a nightmare of computer viruses, malware, connectivity issues — or worse. Indeed, seniors we represent have purchased and used counterfeit prescription drugs from sites that appear legitimate in every way, with reported deaths as a result.

For advocacy groups such as the seniors organization I run, the Internet is the primary form of communication with our supporters. Most of the work we do focuses on enhancing the quality of seniors’ lives and keeping them safe. As such, it is deeply troubling that the online experience for seniors can be so fraught with danger, as online criminals routinely steal their usernames, passwords, bank and credit card information, invade their privacy, and even steal their entire identity.

Just as seniors are catching up in the use and utilization of the Internet, they see and hear stories from friends and family about phishing scams, spam, fake websites, counterfeit products, pirated movies and songs, and on and on. These persistent threats can serve as a deterrent to Internet adoption, which in turn can deprive seniors of the innovative, life-enhancing and potentially lifesaving services available or in development.

To protect American competitiveness and citizens, and to preserve a vibrant economy, free markets, free speech and the innovation that have made America the world’s greatest success story, things have to change, and fast.

This means no more looking the other way as giant companies like Google do nothing when websites such as YouTube display how-to lessons on committing credit card fraud or purchasing illegal drugs. It means lawmakers should shine a spotlight on bad actors online and those who enable them. It can be done, and it can be accomplished while protecting the privacy of our citizens.

Congress and President Obama must put aside their differences and work with all stakeholders in the digital ecosystem to make stories like the Sony hack and our military’s embarrassing exposure on social media a thing of the past. Only then can our nation continue to move confidently into the future and fulfill the promise the Internet holds for all of us.

Jim Martin is chairman and founder of the 60 Plus Association.

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