Comedian Lily Tomlin rose to fame on the 1960s comedy hit, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, as Ernestine, the rude, sarcastic switchboard operator for Ma Bell.
She would tap into customers’ calls, interrupt them, make snide remarks about their personal lives. And her victims included celebrities as much as run-of-the-mill customers.
Lily Tomlin as Ernestine
She introduced herself as working for “the phone company, serving everyone from presidents and kings to the scum of the earth.”
But perhaps the line for which her character is best remembered was: “We don’t care. We don’t have to. We’re the phone company.”
Watching Ernestine on Laugh-In was a blast for millions of TV viewers. But facing such corporate arrogance in real-life is no laughing matter.
Clearly, too many companies take the same attitude as Ernestine: “We don’t care. We don’t have to.”
This is especially true for companies that are supposed to safeguard their customers’ most sensitive information–such as their credit card numbers, addresses, emails and phone numbers.
An October 22, 2014 “commentary” published in Forbes magazine raised the highly disturbing question: “Cybersecurity: Does Corporate America Really Care?”
And the answer is clearly: No.
Its author is John Hering, co-founder and executive director of Lookout, which bills itself as “the world leader in mobile security for consumers and enterprises alike.”
October, 2014 proved a bad month for credit card-using customers of Kmart, Staples and Dairy Queen.
All these companies reported data breaches involving the theft of credit card numbers of countless numbers of customers.
All these corporations reported data breeches involving the theft of credit card numbers of countless numbers of customers.
Earlier breaches had hit Target, Home Depot and JPMorgan/Chase.
And on February 5, 2015, health insurance giant Anthem Inc. announced that hackers had breached its computer system and accessed the medical records of tens of millions of its customers and employees.
Anthem, the nation’s second-largest health insurer, said the infiltrated database held records on up to 80 million people.
Among the customers’ information accessed:
- Social Security numbers
- Member ID numbers
- Phone numbers
- Email addresses and
- Employment information.
Some of the customer data may also include details on their income.
Bad as that news was, worse was to come.
A February 5 story by the Wall Street Journal revealed that Anthem stored the Social Security numbers of 80 million customers without encrypting them.
The company believes that hackers used a stolen employee password to access the database
Anthem’s alleged reason for refusing to encrypt such sensitive data: Doing so would have made it harder for the company’s employees to track health care trends or share data with state and health providers.
Anthem spokeswoman Kristin Binns blamed the data breach on employers and government agencies who “require us to maintain a member’s Social Security number in our systems so that their systems can uniquely identify their members.”
She said that Anthem encrypts personal data when it moves in or out of its database–but not where it is stored.
This is a commonplace practice in the healthcare industry.
The FBI is now investigating the hack.
According to an anonymous source, the hackers used malware that has been used almost exclusively by Chinese cyberspies.
Naturally, China has denied any wrongdoing. With a completely straight face, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said:
“We maintain a cooperative, open and secure cyberspace, and we hope that countries around the world will make concerted efforts to that end.”
He also said that the charge that the hackers were Chinese was “groundless.”
Meanwhile, John Herring’s complaints remain as valid today as they did last October.
“One thing is clear,” writes Hering. “CEOs need to put security on their strategic agendas alongside revenue growth and other issues given priority in boardrooms.”
Hering warns that “CEOs don’t seem to be making security a priority.” And he offers several reasons for this:
- The sheer number of data compromises;
- Relatively little consumer outcry;
- Almost no impact on the companies’ standing on Wall Street;
- Executives may consider such breaches part of the cost of doing business.
“There’s a short-term mindset and denial of convenience in board rooms,” writes Hering.
“Top executives don’t realize their systems are vulnerable and don’t understand the risks. Sales figures and new products are top of mind; shoring up IT systems aren’t.”
There are three ways corporations can be forced to start behaving responsibly on this issue.
- Smart attorneys need to start filing class-action lawsuits against companies that refuse to take steps to protect their customers’ private information. There is a name for such behavior: Criminal negligence. And there are laws carrying serious penalties for it.
- There must be Federal legislation to ensure that multi-million-dollar fines are levied against such companies–and especially their CEOs–when such data breaches occur.
- Congress should enact legislation allowing for the prosecution of CEOs whose companies’ negligence leads to such massive data breaches. They should be considered as accessories to crime, and, if convicted, sentenced to lengthy prison terms.
Only then will the CEO mindset of “We don’t care, we don’t have to” be replaced with: “We care, because our heads will roll if we don’t.”