Do You Trust Your GPS? Do You Trust Your Anti-malware App?

Do You Trust Your GPS? Do You Trust Your Anti-malware App?When one is casting about for ideas relating to how to make good and effective decisions, inspiration sometimes comes in unexpected ways. I just read about some hapless Japanese tourists who made some bad decisions.

Three students were on vacation in Australia and wanted to drive from the mainland to North Stradbroke Island. Now I have never been to Australia, but when one wants to get to an island, one normally assumes there is water in between where you are now and the destination where you want to be. You might be lulled into complacency if you have ever driven from southern Florida out to the various keys on essentially a very long bridge, but still, in the absence of an obvious road, it would be good to assume there is substantial water between you and your goal even if your GPS (global positioning system) says to keep going.

Following the advice of the ubiquitous GPS lady in this case was a bad decision. This was compounded by the bad luck of arriving at the shore at the end of a gravel road at low tide. They got quite a ways out before getting hopelessly stuck in mud, but they did not have long to think about it because the tide was coming in. It was time to abandon ship/car.

The three students say they would like to go back to Australia one day and try again.

We laugh, but what really happened here? The students did not know the area, and might not have been able to read the road signs, but they surely had used GPS back home and they had learned to trust the nice lady who always got them to where they want to go when they were back home. Unlike previous generations of students, they had not needed to develop the innate sense of direction coupled with dead reckoning and map reading that has served previous generations so well. In normal usage, depending on the GPS was a good decision for them, but without realizing it, they always had a common sense backup navigation system to keep them out of trouble. They might not know every street, but they certainly knew the general layout of the land around their home. That knowledge is a good backup to keep the GPS lady honest. Backup based on knowledge was missing in Australia. They were more at risk than they thought, and they were not aware of it.

That process of depending on a decision-making aid in situations where the logical backup is missing is often repeated in every day life. Accidents result. Some of my clients have found they had infected computers after carelessly clicking on (or even hovering over) a suspicious icon. They probably were not worried because they had an anti-malware application installed. Clicking an unknown site was a bad decision if it was based on having a technical backup as protection. That is, just as the common sense of the Japanese students should have protected them from driving into the ocean, an Internet surfer’s common sense aided by experience in that cyber country should offer pretty good protection, and the anti-malware should only be considered a backup, not a primary protection.

Making good decisions most of the time is not difficult. Making good decisions all of the time is hard. That is why we need technical aids to help us. GPS is particularly good at knowing all the street names and addresses, but my GPS has tried to direct me a long way around when I knew a better and shorter route to generally get there, but did not know where the specific address was. I have no qualms about over-riding her suggestions.

Relying only on the GPS to get around would erode my sense of local geography and navigation. Similarly, relying on anti-malware to protect me is inadvisable for two reasons:

  • unlike the GPS, which is nearly always correct, even the best anti-malware programs miss a significant fraction of the threats.
  • I am my own best defense, but not using me as the prime defensive tool allows my skills to deteriorate. If anyone ever comes out with an anti-malware application that is as accurate in navigating the Internet as safely as the GPS is at navigating physical space safely, I will certainly be interested in getting a copy — but even then I would not rely on it 100%. Think of the Japanese students sitting in their rented car while the tide comes in, overflooding the interior, before trusting your anti-malware.

Other examples of two-level protection are common. We have several vacuum cleaners in the house, but we still also have brooms, and they can do a better job at getting up broken glass. I have many pens, but normally write on a keyboard. I have not used a physical dictionary in years, but I still have two of them: a desk version and an unabridged one. They can be handy in challenging at Scrabble. We do most of out banking online, but still have paper checks. The list goes on. Having multiple layers of protection is a good decision. Keeping common sense as the prime decision maker with the others as backups is often the best way to go.

By the way, I always travel with maps and GPS. I take to GPS lady’s words as suggestions, not absolute truth, and if I am not driving, I like to refer to the map to keep her honest. That is me.

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