Going retro: Let's replace digital records with paper

The major hacking incident and data breach at the Office of Personnel Management last year was far from the only instance of our digital treasures being plundered lately. The IRS admitted just last week that identity thieves had hacked into their systems as well… again. The military, Homeland Security, ICE… I could list all the hacking incidents here but this column would quickly run to the length of War and Peace. No matter how many times the problem is brought up and how many resources we dump into fixing the system, the hackers always seem to be one step head of us. So what are we supposed to do?

Glenn Reynolds has come up with a plan. He identifies a number of high profile incidents as well, not just affecting the federal government in Washington, but places like Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center in Los Angeles. They had all of their records locked up by hackers who demanded (and received in Bitcoin) a ransom before they were allowed to access them again. Something needs to be done and Glenn believes we need to go old school on the thieves.

This is pretty serious. Maybe Hollywood Presbyterian could have done a better job of protecting its data, but data on computers can never be perfectly safe. Thus, I propose a more secure technology that would serve as a near-perfect barrier to hackers, ransomware and other exploits: Put important records back on paper.

The truth is, paper records are inherently more secure. To steal 10 million electronic user records from a government agency, all you might need is a cracked password and a thumb drive. To steal that many records on paper, you’d need a fleet of trucks and an uninterrupted month.

And ransomware wouldn’t work on paper records. What would you do — put a padlock on the file cabinets and demand ransom for the key? Not very likely to succeed.

That’s really old school, eh? The idea of pen and paper probably sounds as shocking to our younger readers as the concept of a clock with hands on it. You might as well suggest trepanning as a way to relieve headaches.

But I tend towards a wistfulness regarding the old days myself, as well as being a constant proponent of the theory that the internet eventually ruins everything it touches. (An odd position to take for a writer who makes his living publishing on the web, I know.) Still, it’s not an uncommon sentiment. When the new replaces the old, things get more complicated. General George S. Patton is alleged to have spoken about his hatred for massive bombs and advanced military technology, seeing them as unmanly ways to conduct warfare when compared to the days when you had to charge the enemy with a bayonet, staring death in the face. I tend more towards mourning the loss of books and magazines, which are in decline in the digital era.

But it’s the way of the future, right? Perhaps not. Reynolds may be on to something here because we should occasionally be reminded of the fact that paper may not last forever, but if you store it in a safe place where it’s unlikely to catch fire, it lasts a long time. (See: the Dead Sea Scrolls) Also, with proper maintenance, older, fading documents can be copied rather than simply disappearing one day. Not so with digital data. How much critical information do we have stored digitally which might be entirely lost in the event of an EMP attack? How many of you have lost tons of files and photos in years past when a computer hard drive suddenly went belly up without you having created a backup copy?

No, we don’t have anywhere near the room we’d need to print out every bit of digital data in the world and store it, but some of the most important stuff probably could be. Maybe it’s time for a second look at paper.