One security hepcat's guide to the groovy new tech slang

Did you hear? 'Social engineering' has gone the way of the hula hoop. Get ready for 'wetware,' the latest threat to your network

One security hepcat's guide to the groovy new tech slang

A common pattern of ambition affects many occupations. For example, most lawyers eventually want to be politicians, and most cops eventually want to become full-time doughnut pushers.

For us journalists, we want to become novelists, which is as close as we’ll ever get to being rock stars … or assistants to rock stars or maybe bellhops who hold open doors for assistants to rock stars. It’s why we hate novelists and loudly decry their worth to humanity -- until the day we ourselves become novelists. Then novelists will, of course, exemplify all that is good in the world, while journalists will remain a bunch of touch-typing yahoos who couldn’t hack it.

However, to make the transition, a perception of expertise is critical to an author’s ability to sell stories he probably made up in the shower. That’s why ambitious reporter-cum-authors like to build up their know-how while they’re still reporting on municipal park-planning meetings.

For example, if you work with a guy who volunteers to cover the town’s annual scooter festival and starts riding a moped to work every day, he might be prepping to someday pen a biker story: “DA Bowling, author of 'Leather, Knee Ouchies, and Extra Loud Mufflers: A Novel,' has been involved with motorcycle culture for more than 25 years. He watches coverage of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally every year while supping hot cocoa.” Poof! Instant cred.

What is wetware?

I bring this up because it’s the only explanation I can dream up for Adam Levin’s recent article in the Huffington Post, "Wetware: The Major Data Security Threat You’ve Never Heard Of," which I believe is a sequel to a previous piece, "Prepositions: The Words With Which You Shouldn’t End Titles With But Do Anyway … Of."

When I come across something to do with technology and security that I’ve never heard of, I dive in, bad grammar or not. It turns out Mr. Levin recently read a study, the Fifth Annual Benchmark Study on Privacy & Security of Healthcare Data, and was offended that not only did the study’s authors not end their title in a preposition, they also reported that “criminal and state-sponsored hacks have surpassed human error as the leading cause of health care data breaches.”

The article is convoluted from more than a grammatical standpoint, as Levin proceeds from this premise to concentrate his cyber terror-mongering on the human error recently surpassed by technology. (Go ahead and read that last sentence again, I’ll wait.) Fortunately, he abuses the English language a little more and invents a catchy new name for human error: the aforementioned “wetware,” presumably adapted from the lasting literature of Tom Clancy wherein shadowy figures kill each other with guns, knives, and mean descriptors. According to Levin:

Wetware is a term of art used by hackers to describe a non-firmware, hardware or software approach to getting the information they want to pilfer. In other words, people. (The human body is more than 60 percent water.)

Let's ask the hackers

I’ve met a few hackers over the decades, usually at alcohol-soaked parties, after which I wake up in random dumpsters smelling like last week’s urinal cake and probably consisting of more than 30 percent scotch. Levin’s right -- they never mentioned wetware, which is probably why I never heard of it. Instead, they cite a phenomenon known as “social engineering,” because hackers tend to be annoying bastards who take inordinate pleasure in peevish irony, which Tom Clancy readers probably don’t encounter very much.

Why invent a new word for a problem that’s been around since the abacus? Levin is, apparently, the former Director of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs, as well as the Chairman of and Identity Theft 911, so no way, no how could he possibly have an ulterior motive for mindlessly spreading fear and getting attention. I mean, he's clearly sans clue about technology, data breaches, and prepositions.

Telling tales about the apparent legions of gullible hicks working in the health care industry and the impact of their careless antics on your credit rating is certainly easier than doing meaningful research on annoyances like Heartbleed or LogJam. It probably also can’t hurt whatever mission Identity Theft 911 purports to chase. But with a snazzy term like "wetware" popping up in the same piece, I bet we’ll soon see Adam Levin's debut thriller gracing Amazon’s Top 10 New Novels to Avoid list, probably entitled “To Dare the Wetware … To -- a Bikini Hacksquad Dyslexia 911 Novel.”

Can’t wait to read it. At.

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