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The first book to change my life was safety expert Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear. As I’ve written here several times before, it may well have saved a sister’s life.

For all I love de Becker, I ignored everything his books have taught me this morning … and I did so at my own peril.

I just called the credit union I visited this morning. I told the rep that I’d encountered someone suspicious at the ATM this morning. I wanted to alert them in case he’d installed a PIN skimmer.

She asked me to explain what made me suspicious. I described the encounter, and only realized after I’d hung up the phone that he might not have been interested in skimming PINs at all.

My blood ran cold.

The man at the ATM had a hoodie wrapped so tightly around his face that no features were visible. He turned away and stepped toward his car. Funnily, he didn’t seem to have taken anything from the ATM.

I stepped up to the ATM and began my transaction, assuming he’d gotten into the car. Waiting for my receipt. I heard a shuffling behind me. I turned to look, and the man was behind me. He quickly turned away and scrambled into his car.

He sat there in his car, face to the steering wheel, features hidden.

I climbed into my car. I drove it to a spot where I could see and write down his license plate number.

He didn’t have a license plate. 

Oh, well, I thought. I’d tried.

I reminded myself to change my PIN and call the bank during business hours.

One of the key lessons de Becker teaches is that fear–which is completely distinct from anxiety–is a gift. When we feel genuine fear, it’s because we’re picking up subtle cues that something is unsafe. Our logical minds try to swat these thoughts away: “Don’t be ridiculous! Come on, you’ve done this hundreds of times before!”

In these cases, our logical minds endanger us.

This morning, before I even stopped the car, I looked toward the man at the ATM and thought, “I shouldn’t get out of the car.” But, dammit, I wanted to deposit that check, and I got out of the car to do just that.

I’ve read too damn much de Becker to do such a thing, and yet … I did. I didn’t even remember the thought until about five hours later.

That thought was my protector, and I discarded it.

The point is not to be anxious about everything all the time. It is to notice that one time out of hundreds that you do feel fear, and to treat that fear as the gift it is. To protect yourself.

If you want to know more about why you should listen to that voice, please read The Gift of Fear.

Whether or not you read the book, please listen to and act on that protective voice of fear if you hear it. To read de Becker is to understand that this often makes the difference between life and death.

Please protect yourself.

Please.

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The merits of the credit freeze

On Monday, I wrote about my favorite source for InfoSec and Equifax breach-related news. Today, I wanted to add some important follow-up based on yesterday’s testimony.

Brian Krebs, my favored InfoSec resource, strongly recommends individual citizens pursue a legal credit freeze over a contractual credit lock. While a credit freeze might cost you a few dollars (depending on which state you’re in), it also affords you–the individual citizen–much more robust protection than does a credit lock.

Why? Krebs quickly gets to the heart of it:

Lawmakers on today’s panel seemed content with Smith’s answer that [a credit freeze and a credit lock] were effectively the same, only that a freeze was more cumbersome and costly, whereas credit locks were free and far more consumer-friendly.

It’s not only Krebs refuting this. He explains that Consumers Union staff attorney Christina Tetreault

notes that perhaps the main reason a security freeze is the better option is that its promise to guard your credit accounts is guaranteed by law, whereas a credit lock is simply an agreement between you and the credit monitoring company.

Krebs concludes:

What’s more, placing a freeze on your file is exactly what Equifax and the other bureaus do not want you to do, because it prevents them from making money by selling your credit file to banks and others (including ID thieves) who wish to grant new lines of credit in your name. If that’s not the best reason for opting for a freeze, I don’t know what is.

On a related note, now … retired … Equifax CEO Richard Smith made clear that “the company’s customers are in fact banks and other businesses – not consumers.” With credit bureau profits deriving from companies, not individual citizens, the bureaus have very little incentive to protect individual citizens’ data. This mindset shows in Smith’s testimony.

Once upon a time, I believed it was unequivocally good that tablet computers and EpiPens (for example) were made more widely available in schools. While there are indubitably some benefits, I now understand that improving citizens’ lives was not the corporate inspiration for such moves. Rather, that inspiration is in their profit margins.

Individual citizens can only pay pennies compared to what governmental customers can.

Recall from my last post my note on how “deregulation” is really re-regulation. Basically, when corporations lobby for “deregulation,” they invoke the idea of “free markets” while (1) transferring the costs of so-called market freedom to individual citizens and (2) reaping ample profits from the transfer.* As Kate Raworth succinctly put it, “financial deregulation actually just shifts the costs and benefits of financial crisis onto a different group of people.” Namely, you and me.

Doesn’t feel very “free,” does it? It sure doesn’t to me. This is why it’s so important to understand the difference between a credit freeze and a credit lock, and to show your legislators you both know the difference and expect them to favor your protections over corporate ones in the future.

* If you’d like to read an excellent explanation on the merger between corporation and U.S. government, check out Sheldon S. Wolin’s 2008 book Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism.

 

What’s a citizen to do about Equifax?

My professional career has revolved around software contracts. Initially, I negotiated and managed them; now I reference them heavily while performing a different kind of work. Throughout, I’ve been especially interested in terms related to Information Security (“InfoSec”).

Some software publishers offer customers fairly robust InfoSec protections. I generally felt pretty good about companies (1) whose starting positions guaranteed specific measures to ensure protection of customer data and (2) who promised some kind of compensation if customer data became available because of the publisher’s software and/or hardware offerings. Such software publishers had “skin in the game,” or incentive to really ensure their customers’ data was protected. Why would they be lax when they’d experience specific, sometimes severe consequences for breach resulting from failure to do so?

On the other end of the spectrum were publishers who offered vague assurances with no guaranteed compensation for any breach. This was the opposite of having skin in the game: “We’ll totally check our software once every other year for major flaws and give commercially reasonable efforts to fix them. If there’s a breach that reveals bunches of your data, we’ll send you cake.” I was much more concerned with these publishers, whose lackadaisical approach to InfoSec practically screamed, “We care more about the money you’re required to give us than your ability to stay afloat!”

This all left me with a keen interest in InfoSec, especially when I saw how much less care companies give individual citizens* compared to paying corporate customers. If corporate customers at the very least got a cake, individual citizens got … nothing. Giving more than nothing would cut into profit margins!

I’ve subscribed and unsubscribed to bunches of InfoSec newsletters over the years. The only one I continue to follow now is KrebsOnSecurity.com. Brian Krebs’s coverage of the Equifax breach is a perfect example of why. He critically analyzes the breach and presents it in language even distant non-experts can follow. More importantly, he lets individual citizens know what they can do to limit their exposure.

If you’re concerned about what to do following the Equifax breach of 143 Americans’ credit data, Brian’s “The Equifax Breach: What You Should Know” is a great place to start. If you’d like more excellent analysis of the breach, I’d suggest “Here’s What to Ask the Former Equifax CEO.” His proposed questions for U.S. legislators to ask reveal a great deal about companies that give prominent indications they care much, much less about citizen data protection concerns than for whatever revenue they can milk from citizens. If protecting citizen data costs money (uuuuugh, maintaining software and hardware is expensive!), they’ll cut corners and hope for the best.

As individual citizens, we don’t have the financial leverage to demand better protections the way individual corporate customers can. This means that it’s critical for individuals to (1) find and use those protective measures that are available to individuals (thanks for highlighting them, Brian!) and (2) consider how re-regulation** impacts citizens’ ability to collectively mitigate citizen costs created when some corporate entities treat InfoSec not as a valuable investment in citizen well being but a drain on profits.

Otherwise? It’s important to remember: Unlike corporate customers, we individuals won’t even get a cake. 

* I originally typed “consumer,” so prevalent is such phrasing in reporting, but I reject that. We individuals are far more than consumers. We are citizens, and are far more valuable than the dollars we spend.

** There is no such thing as deregulation, only reregulation. Changes to regulation typically called “deregulation” aren’t neutral but heavily lobbied for by specific corporate beneficiaries. As Kate Raworth puts it here,

There’s always going to be regulation shaping what can and can’t be done, you’re just shifting the regulatory space. You ask how are those shifts benefiting, or how are the costs and benefits of that shifting re-regulation falling on other people? So financial deregulation actually just shifts the costs and benefits of financial crisis onto a different group of people.

 

small steps toward justice

Two years ago, I submitted a complaint to the U.S. Department of Justice.

My older son’s school had recently changed owners. I was sad to see the old owner go; she’d been so sweet to both my sons. On the other hand, she’d had to close the school baby room, which meant I’d had to move my then-infant son to a school that cost more than twice as much.

The new owners would be reopening the school’s baby room. If I could move my younger son back there, I’d pay half as much for his daycare. I was relieved by the prospect.

Unfortunately, two factors converged against his enrollment.

First, he’d recently been diagnosed with a severe egg allergy. Where he went, so went his EpiPen. Read more…

missed

(how to save) a life

A few weeks ago, one of my sisters sent me a string of loving texts. We share such strings often just because, but these particular texts were inspired by a Facebook memory. 

Facebook had just reminded her of a post she wrote for my blog four years ago. In one post, “The Gift of Fear,” I wrote about how the book The Gift of Fear might have saved her life. A few weeks later, in “Her Escape, Her Words,” she wrote about the journey as she’d taken it.

I reread both posts after she texted. Her post filled me with joy; she not only escaped, but has come to flourish here in SoCal. I am so freakin’ proud of her and how she makes choices to protect herself and enable herself to thrive.

My own post, though, left a pit in my stomach. When I’d written it, I’d almost completely failed to grasp how deeply systemic features–which I’d call “flaws,” were they not parts of systems designed to protect some few at the expense of many others–conspire against abused partners. I’d said, “You deserve better!” as a strictly individual initiative, without understanding just how much U.S. systems neither broadly support nor encourage that. To escape successfully requires not only defiance but faith (which can’t come easy when you live your life in fear, an island surrounded by thousands of people who don’t appear to notice your suffering) and–here’s where it really falls apart–resources, be they time, money, or social.

When she came over and sat on the stinky old couch that had served for six weeks as her bed, I explained my remorse. I told her I was so damn glad she’d escaped, but that I also feel such deep remorse how few women have resources to successfully make the escape. How miserable it is that life-or-death matters should come down to who you know, and who you know will have your back no matter what.

A system that “works” like that is a terrible, no-good system.

And yet, I explained, it doesn’t mean I’m not enduringly grateful for The Gift of Fear. Far from it! The fact there’s a book that can help guide some women to escape, and to understand it’s even possible, is a book well worth keeping spare copies to hand out (as I do). Better still, the fact that the same book helps inform other women–and men–how to avoid creeps who only seem charming makes it priceless. 

With all this joy and outrage still churning in my heart over the weekend, I searched for podcasts including Gift‘s author, Gavin de Becker. I was delighted to find a two-parter.

If you’d like to get better at trusting your instincts and making them trustworthy, these are for you. Thanks to this podcast, you needn’t read the book to learn some of its most important lessons. 

You can find part one here. Part two is here.

Such lessons might have saved my sister’s life. Sure, they might not be enough to save everyone, everywhere, given American systemic biases for the strong and against the struggling … but I’m here to tell you how beautiful it is, from the outside, to watch that one life grow.

The New Jim Crow & the Nightmare River

When I started reading The New Jim Crow a couple of years ago, I felt my world rippling. I don’t mean this allegorically. I felt the smoothness disturbed by something else clawing to be let in.

Before I picked up the book, I’d been floating along on the smooth, clear water of U.S. life. I assumed all was (mostly) good and well straight down to the river’s bottom.

Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow‘s author, invited me to stop floating and actually dip a finger into the water. Beneath the thin veneer of calm, her recounting of recent American history informed me, I’d find turbulence and boiling water that was scalding people alive.

I dipped in one finger and discovered she was right. Horrified, I returned my hands to the surface. I set Alexander’s book aside and enjoyed my onward drift.

Over the summer, little burning bubbles began emerging from the water around me. They were uncommon and only a little painful, so I ignored them at first. Why would I go seek out more pain?

But then I saw bigger bubbles roiling below the surface and understood: the U.S. is a world in which only a few are allowed to float at the surface. Others are forced down, trapped in the murky, hot water beneath and struggling to reach the surface for even a moment’s gasping breath.

I understood: they suffer so that I might stay comfortably afloat. “Oh, shit!” I started shouting to those floating near enough to hear me. “People are drowning below us! We have to see the whole river beneath us, not just the sparkles up top, or they’re going to keep on drowning!”

Alone, I saw, I could pull very, very few people up to the surface. If I could enlist other surface-floaters to reach down, though, I knew we could together evacuate this nightmare river and seek out one with cleaner, genuinely smooth waters where all were equally able to experience the river in its fullness.

“Shhh, you’re disturbing our ride,” fellow floaters admonished in return.  Read more…

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