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I decided it was more convenient to
keep my personal computer in the non-
profit office so that I could work from
there whenever I had the time.
One evening some crazy person
smashed through the glass storefront
window of the nonprofit's office,
decided that my PC was the most
valuable thing in the place, and ran off
with it. I lost a lot of personal informa-
tion that day.
A few years later I decided to move full-
time into the nonprofit world, and to
celebrate quitting my job to save the
world I visited a good friend in Hawaii
for a few weeks. On the day I arrived
we hiked through the jungle and con-
cluded by jumping into a pool at the
base of a 30-foot waterfall. It was a
thrilling experience until I realized my
cell phone was still in my pocket and
was never going to make another call
again. It took a long time to get all of
my friends' and family's phone num-
bers back.
The point of these two stories is that,
for a variety of reasons, data on a sin-
gle device is not particularly safe. I am
probably more accident-prone than
average (I also once had an external
hard drive that simply stopped power-
ing on, and I had a work laptop stolen
out of a hotel room), but there is no
way anyone can be guaranteed that an
electronic device will continue to func-
tion (and remain in his or her posses-
sion) forever.
In addition to the dangers inherent in
keeping data on a particular device,
there is also the danger of sending that
data across the Internet. I've been for-
tunate in that I've never had a situation
where an email or file sent over the
Internet was captured, but to explain
this danger, I'll talk briefly about how
email and messaging works.
When you write an email, that email is
sent as text or HTML in a very simple,
easy-to-read format. It goes from your
computer through an SMTP server
(which, to highlight the simplicity of the
process, stands for "Simple Mail
Transfer Protocol"). The SMTP server
takes the domain of the email address
to which you're sending the message
(everything after the @ symbol) and
goes out across the Internet to find the
recipient's email server, which would be
a POP3 (Post Office Protocol) or IMAP
(Internet Mail Access Protocol) server.
When it finds this server it delivers the
message, assuming the address is valid.
So why is this dangerous? Well, the
fact is, it isn't very dangerous. The
chances of anyone intercepting that
message are very, very slim. However,
it is possible, and that's where the
problem lies when accountants and
their clients send emails with personal
or confidential information in the text or
attachment.
The reason is that when a message
needs to travel from point A to point B
over the Internet, it works very similar-
ly to how someone gets driving direc-
tions on Google Maps. Google Maps
considers all of the potential roads and
highways before selecting the route
that gets you where you want to go in
the shortest time.
Internet communication uses fiber or
airwaves and routers rather than
streets and intersections, but the
process is very similar to navigate a
route from point A to point B. So an
email message (or any other kind of
internet traffic) must travel through a
variety of routers before finally arriving
at its destination.
At any point along that chain, it is pos-
sible to look at the data, much like you
can scoop a cup of water out of a flow-
ing stream. And as crazy as it sounds,
people dedicate themselves to captur-
advocacy community education
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