Flit! Or the Flight of the 70-Year-Old Hummingbird

Hello! My name is Jon and I am a webaholic.

As a part of my ramping down into retirement, I have been trying cleanup my presence on the web. I suppose that there are people that have a more significant problem than I do but that does not excuse me. I am listed on dozens of mailing lists and registered on a wondrous number of websites. How did I get to this sorry state of affairs, you ask? It was with the best of intentions, I assure you.

First of all, I am naturally curious. If the Discovery Channel is showing a documentary of how sewers work, there is a good chance that I will watch it. I have no desire to build, clean, visit, or have anything to do with sewers, other than the minimum that is required by natural bodily processes that are clearly outside of the scope of this discussion. I just value the knowledge, all knowledge. I read blogs. I read books. I read magazines. I read on-line news sites. All of this in pursuit of more knowledge.

Second of all, it has been part of my job. There are two aspects here: one noble and one not so much. The noble part of my job is that as a consultant, I have to figure out what problem the client has and what technology can be used to solve that problem. The problem is that there are a whole lot of different kinds of technology out there and they seem to breed like rabbits in perpetual heat. There is no way that anyone can know about all of these technologies.

But we have the ability to search the web. With some effort, it is possible to find information on these technologies and learn enough about them to solve the problem at hand. This is a skill that I, and many other consultants, have. Find a lot of possibly relevant information, jam it into the brain blender, pulse it a couple of time, and fish out the bits and pieces that seem to be relevant. Use these bits and pieces to find more information. Repeat until an answer to the question emerges.

The not-so-noble part of consulting is the BS factor. As consultants, we come into a client to solve a particular problem, but we are always looking for opportunities to help the client in other ways with other problems. There might be casual conversation in which the client asks if you know anything about X, where X is the latest technology to find its way into the popular literature. The goal of the consultant is to be able to string together a handful of sentences that demonstrate mastery of the topic, beg off discussing details, and run home to learn enough to have a “meeting on the topic” or find another consultant in the company that can “walk the walk and talk the talk.”

Both of these purposes require me to flit from one website to another like a hummingbird in the pursuit of information. It is a dirty job, but someone has to do it. The dirty part of the job is that many of these websites want you to “become a part of their community.” In other words, you have to sign up, register, and provide some intimate details of your personage to gain access to the website. They always want your email address so that they can share the “good news” about whatever it is that excites them. There is enough of a chance that there is some value to the website, that you are willing to reveal your secrets in return for treasure.

But around the fiftyish such interaction, the cynicism mounts and you start lying about everything. To the security question about what you favorite color is, you say “bratwurst” without the slightest tinge of guilt. I have a problem that needs a solution. The client and my teammates are looking to me to come up with a solution. The answer is out there somewhere on the web. Maybe this website is the one that will show me the way to salvation, or at least, give me another search term that gets me closer. It may well be a “slippery slope” but a desperate software developer is willing to brave all sorts of dangers, moral and spiritual, in pursuit of an answer.

I mean, how bad can it be to lie to a pile of hardware and software? Unless it is a truly advanced artificial intelligence, can it even understand the concept of what a lie is? Besides, how is the website going to catch you in a lie? Another software developer wrote some logic to capture the data entered in the web form into a database. Chances are that no human being is ever going to actually look at the answers. More programming logic is going to send out the emails. Clearly, no sentient beings were harmed during this registration, no matter how far away the supplied data might be from objective reality.

The one thing that it is difficult to lie about is your email address. Increasingly, the clever website asks you for your email but does not let you in until it has sent you a confirmation email and you have responded to that confirmation email. Here there are real consequences for lying. The unfortunate part of this interaction is that the website now knows where you live, at least with respect to where you receive email, and website cannot resist the urge to reach out and connect with you. Frequently!

So I am faced with the prospect of dozens of websites that I no longer care about, if I ever cared about them at all. I could just go through the ritual of unsubscribing to all the distribution list that they use to send out emails like dandelion seeds in a summer breeze. Then I could ignore them. The problem is that these websites still have my email address and in many cases the password that I supplied. It is possible, cough, cough, that I did not practice good password hygiene in all instances. But in my defense, my involvement with some of these sites goes back over a decade. In those days we were all so young and innocent and didn’t realize just how nasty the web could be and how little it took to trigger that nastiness. What is the harm of using the same password at a dozen different websites? What could possibly go wrong?

If you’ve been paying the slightest bit of attention to what’s been going on out there in the Internet, you realize that most websites are not even marginally secure. It is almost the case that you can see commercials on late night TV for Crack O-Matic; for $19.95 plus shipping and handling you too can have your own personal copy of software to crack virtually every website out there in the world. The family that cracks together, stays together. And so on. Furthermore, it turns out that it is pathetically easy to crack passwords. Add to this, the willingness of some websites to sell your personal information to marketers or other nefarious folk, and you have a real danger not just to being annoyed by spam but to being subject to identity theft. This is most unpleasant.

So, at least for a while, I’m going to have to take off the hummingbird suit and clean up the mess that I have made. For each website that I no longer care about, I must:

  • Change the password to the strongest one that I can generate.
  • Change the email address to a throwaway email address I don’t care about.
  • Scrub the account profile to remove as much personal information as I can.
  • Delete the account if possible, ignoring the fact that the website might perform a “soft” delete which does not physically delete the data but merely hides it from view.

This might protect me, but then again, who knows?

Trust me on this: retirement is not for wimps.


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