In Starbucks today, an acquaintance leaned over and said, “Is this true?” while gesturing to the opening paragraph in the dead tree version of this article from the New York Times that read in part,

A jovial senior engineer at the Georgia Tech Research Institute in Atlanta…can hack into your cellphone just by dialing the number.

I wasn’t surprised to hear the concern in his voice. I calmly said, “Let me look into it,” and found the article online.

First, I tried not to read it as a nerd. I tried to get my mind into the state of the scared man that showed me the article. When I did, what I read then was a horror story about how all my information and secret dealings could be heard if this smart guy (or someone who knows how to use Google) dialed my phone number. Harrowing.

Then, I read it as a nerd. I read a story about vulnerabilities that exist with phones if users do silly things like installing software from unsolicited communications that they haven’t verified, installing cracked software, or using unsecured Wi-Fi. Suddenly, this smart man at the Georgia Tech Research Institute has a lot of dependencies that extend beyond dialing my phone number. He has to somehow trick me into doing something fishy.

If you’re not a nerd, here’s what you need to know about this:

  1. Don’t install software whose provenance you haven’t verified, and don’t pirate software.
  2. Browse securely. Don’t browse non-secured sites (http:// vs https://) over a non-secure connection. If you didn’t have to enter a password, then the connection is not secure. Beyond that, if someone else has the password, they can decrypt the traffic too. If you use non-secured or public Wi-Fi connections, use protection. I recommend Cloak.

That’s it.

The upshot is this. Whenever you feel afraid, ask yourself what the source of that fear has to gain by causing you to feel afraid. If it’s a natural disaster, the answer is nothing. If it’s a website with an author writing for a large entity, that could be advertising revenue and “stickiness“.

The New York Times is not a natural disaster.