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Mr. Weiner, Put Up That Wall!

A Commentary by Froma Harrop

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

A New York Democrat has joined what had been a largely Republican caucus of congressmen committing sexually inappropriate online behavior. A picture of Rep. Anthony Weiner's crotch (in underwear) appeared on a Twitter stream sent to a Seattle college student. At first, Weiner said that the photo might not be him and insisted he didn't send it. "My system was hacked," he complained.

"There are -- I have photographs," the six-term congressman told CNN. "I don't know what photographs are out there in the world of me."

And why wouldn't he, if he had any sense of self-preservation? Nothing online is absolutely safe from prying eyes. There's no protection on Facebook. E-mail can be hacked. And the dude on the laptop two tables away at Starbucks may be following your lunch-hour banking activities.

Furthermore, hackers have become a serious threat to American defenses. For example, cybercriminals penetrated the systems of Lockheed Martin, maker of sophisticated weaponry. The Pentagon now calls such invasions "acts of war." Shouldn't lawmakers overseeing national security at least know how to protect their own?

Only people on Weiner's Twitter Team are authorized to Tweet in his name. So the bottom line here is that (a) Weiner hadn't properly vetted his people and/or (b) he took and put online compromising images of himself. With his confession, (b) is the apparent answer.

As any owner of a soft-top convertible understands, whatever's inside is community property. And the same goes for any image or comment placed online. Sure, we accept some risks in banking, gossiping and joking via the Internet. But if there's something you absolutely don't want to get out of the corral, you don't launch it into cyberspace.

One recalls an Italian journalist's observation during an epidemic of burglaries after Italy's "economic miracle" in the post-World War II years. Thinking a new secure age had dawned, Italians started building open modern buildings, a departure from their traditional fortress-like architecture. Thieves punched through the glass and helped themselves.

What were we thinking, the Italian writer asked, putting sliding glass doors on our houses?

There were reasons why the Renaissance princes lived behind thick stone walls and narrow windows, even as they controlled their own armies. For privacy, Spaniards built courtyards in the middle of their houses, Victorians drew heavy drapes at sundown, and English villagers planted high hedges. The online world is invisible, however, so we are far less sure how much outsiders can see.

Google is today's digital prince, yet hackers infiltrated its email service. Sony, no tech slouch, suffered a security breach that temporarily closed down its PlayStation Network.

Even high school kids know not to put drunken party pictures of themselves on Facebook, lest a potential employer get the wrong (or perhaps the right) idea about them. That politicians in Washington don't have the sophistication to keep their personal lives entirely offline is more troubling than the behavior itself. It makes you wonder whether they know anything about the world we live in.

Centuries before the first laptop, love letters got people in trouble. But physical evidence was so much easier to keep under lock and key than the electronic kind. Passwords and other supposed security barriers are really just sliding glass doors.

Blame it on arrogance, sloppiness or bad luck: Weiner's story offers a primer on why you shouldn't put secrets online. Bring back walls -- the kind you hurt your fist on.

COPYRIGHT 2011 THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL CO.

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See Other Commentaries by Froma Harrop.

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