The Olympics are supposed to celebrate the best in human nature, bridging divides of culture and nation through sportsmanship and fair competition. Inevitably, however, the Olympic Games also can become a stage for failure, for people so blinded by ego and the will to win that they compromise all the noble principles for which they supposedly stand. From Tonya Harding’s role in the attack on her figure skating rival Nancy Kerrigan in the lead-up to the 1994 Olympics to Tyler Hamilton’s recent admission that he used performance-enhancing drugs, which led the International Olympic Committee to strip him of his 2004 gold medal, some athletes knowingly supplant truth and hard work with “the ends justify the means” philosophy and subvert the foundation of the games.
The same goes for top performers in business and government when they negligently or knowingly contribute to identity theft and the compromise of privacy and security. We depend on business leaders to run their companies in a responsible way that protects consumers from fraud. We expect politicians to follow the laws they help write, defend citizens’ privacy and take strong action to combat would-be criminals who threaten to steal our money, our identities and jeopardize our lives.
In recent months and years, we’ve seen these ideals betrayed on several occasions. Companies that claim to safeguard consumers’ identities, but do the opposite for reasons of budget or priority. Politicians who proclaim their commitment to protecting our nation from all enemies foreign and domestic, but allow good laws to die so that they can point fingers and play the blame game. Perhaps worst of all are those powerful politicians and business leaders whose mindless allegiance to the oaths of others effectively promotes collusion with criminals to invade the privacy of the privileged, the poor, and the grieving.
It’s time to invite this band of scoundrels to the podium. By giving them medals-in-reverse, and shaming them for their misdeeds, we hope to cast a negative spotlight on behavior that must not be tolerated.
The Bronze Medal: Wyndham Worldwide Corp.
If betrayal means committing actions that violate one’s word, Wyndham Worldwide definitely fits the definition. Since 2008, the hospitality chain that operates 7,200 hotels around the world proudly proclaimed on its website, “We recognize the importance of protecting the privacy of individual-specific (personally identifiable) information collected about guests, callers to our central reservation centers, visitors to our Web sites, and members participating in our Loyalty Program …”
But even after making such a bold proclamation, Wyndham Worldwide continued using simple user ID’s and passwords, plus flimsy firewalls, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Its software failed even to simply encrypt credit card numbers, the absolute bare minimum protection required of any company claiming to “recognize the importance” of guests’ private data.
The inevitable result: Three big data breaches in two years. The first one, in April 2008, led to the exposure of half a million credit card accounts. Then, in March 2009, hackers used similar techniques as they did in the first breach to scrape memory from the company’s computers and steal another 50,000 credit card accounts. A few months later they did it again, and stole 69,000 more.
Basically Wyndham hung a “Vacancy” sign welcoming thieves to the company’s databases of millions of guests’ payment card accounts. Come swim in our Olympic pool of credit card numbers! Order room service on someone else’s dime! This string of failures led to a rare lawsuit by the Federal Trade Commission against Wyndham Worldwide for allegedly failing to uphold its privacy and security commitment to consumers.
Wyndham Worldwide, you fell down once and just kept falling. For your utter disregard for protecting your guests’ identities, we present you with the Bronze Medal.
The Silver Medal: the Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Senate
When Senator Joseph Lieberman, the independent from Connecticut, first introduced the Cybersecurity Act of 2012, it looked as though Congress was about to have its Olympic moment. Unfortunately, we are in the midst of the most expensive presidential election in history, Republicans and Democrats are locked in a titanic battle over who will control both houses of Congress, and the politics of “No!” has become the rule rather than the exception.
Securing our nation’s critical infrastructure like nuclear power plants and water systems from foreign attack is the definition of a nonpartisan issue. With a threat this big, and this obvious, with even top leaders of the Pentagon declaring a cyber attack a looming threat, here was the perfect opportunity for Congress to come together and do what’s right for America.
However, we’re talking about the US Congress here and, as to be expected, they blew it. Republicans threatened to filibuster the bill, partly to do the bidding of their financial masters at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and partly to deny the Democrats and President Obama any election-year edge. Democrats responded to this gridlock by abjectly capitulating, offering by the end to make all the bill’s requirements voluntary (which means just a further continuation of the uneven computer security standards that are precisely the problem).
The whole thing disintegrated under the tsunami of partisan finger-pointing, with Republicans charging that Democratic leader Harry Reid “rushed” the bill (which has spent the last two years wending its way through committee hearings – hardly a stampede), and Democrats claiming they had to try and kill the bill to save it (Ah yes, I remember now, “We destroyed the village to save it.”).
All of which means that America’s water supply, electrical grid and transportation systems are sitting ducks, prime for hackers’ plucking. Well done, Congress! For abandoning the nation to further your petty Beltway ego trips, you are herewith rewarded the Silver Medal.
The Gold Medal: Rupert Murdoch, His Newspaper Empire, and a very special group of his friends in high places – members of the British Government:
Governments have a responsibility to protect the privacy of their citizens. Journalists have a responsibility to get stories by truthful means, without intimidating the innocent or obstructing justice. It is perhaps dark justice then that this year’s Gold Medal should go to the very government and media leaders who just hosted and reported on the 2012 Olympic Games in London. As big an impact as the games had on British life this summer, the utter failure of a meaningful segment of the British publishing world and some of Britain’s most important leaders to stand up for what’s right has stained Her Majesty’s government for almost seven years.
What began in 2005 as a minor scandal about a few rogue British journalists hacking the phones of the royal family has morphed into the most significant, longest running and perhaps most sordid media and privacy scandal ever. The turning point came when it was discovered that journalists and private investigators working for Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper, News of the World, had hacked into the cell phone of Milly Dowler, a 13-year-old girl who was abducted in March 2002. In an effort to get as much “dirt” as possible, they deleted voicemails to make room for new messages, thereby giving her parents false home that their daughter was still alive, and destroying potentially crucial evidence in what would become a murder trial.
As terrible as those revelations were, the scandal has actually grown. Journalists spied on countless public and private figures, as well as the child of former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and family members of soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Hired thugs used News of the World vans and other equipment to spy on the Scotland Yard detective who was investigating them for murder.
Not only did the British government fail to prevent such abuses, it appears that officials, in some cases, brought the criminals in from the cold. Right as the scandal was breaking, Conservative Party leader and current Prime Minister David Cameron hired Andy Coulson to be his spokesman (last month, Coulson was one of eight former News of the World executives arrested for their roles in hacking into Milly Dowler’s phone). Scotland Yard had been so intimidated by Rupert Murdoch’s bullying newspapers that it declined to investigate Murdoch’s hired thugs for spying on its own detective and the detective’s wife.
Rupert Murdoch, Andy Coulson, former News of the World Editor Rebekah Brooks, members of the Cameron coalition government and a significant supporting cast of rogues have lots of explaining to do (both in Europe and perhaps even here in the United States) for their roles in either illegally invading citizens’ privacy, or helping others who did. Hopefully, some are headed to prison. But all of them deserve the spotlight of shame. To all those who led the British phone hacking scandal and all of the powerful leaders who helped it fester, this year’s Gold Medal is yours.
Adam Levin Chairman and cofounder of Credit.com and Identity Theft 911. Adam’s experience as former director of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs gives him unique insight into consumer privacy, legislation and financial advocacy. He is a nationally recognized expert on identity theft and credit. Reach Adam at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo credit: Andrew Winning
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