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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  • Rick Wright

    It reminds me of the time my daughter and son in law decided to use the GPS device on his new smartphone to find a faster route to our home in a different state. After being on the road twice as long my daughter laughing and nobody well versed in reading a road map they called.we got them going west vs.south and eventually arrived . We bought them a compass an atlas and showed them how to use it ,he deleted his app.  

    • Sdeforest

       As I said in another reply, the backup technology is often more primitive than the primary one, but sometimes it works better the other way around.

  • Kyle Polansky

    Great article, GPS technology is amazing, but not always perfect.

    • Sdeforest

       Just today my wife got into an argument with the GPS lady, and my wife was right.  But the GPS lady did not apologize.

  • Shannon Linquist

    This is a great article and it brings up a good point. “Redundancy” should be a required word in the technology sector. As the Space Shuttle always had 2 backup computers in case of a failure, we should have a backup plan. In the Coast Guard the motto is “Semper Paratus”….”Always Ready”…..GPS battery dying?…use the map. Burned out headlight while driving at night….keep a spare lamp in the trunk. Like you said…the list goes on.

    • Sdeforest

       Thank you for the comment.  Another note is that the backup is often a more primitive (less technical) method.  Having the backup and primary at the same level of technology is another issue.

  • johnwerneken

    I don’t trust anyone let alone a piece if equipment or software. I was in a cab in Beaverton Oregon the other day; the taxi driver’s gps said we were in Ventura California. One hopes that the missiles if fired will land on the enemy not on us lol…

    • Sdeforest

       Did he charge you for the extra miles?

      • johnwerneken

        There weren’t any extra miles. I might not always be the driver, but vehicles I am in go where I want or I get out. And I may not always know the best route, but I always know where I am and where I want to go. And I don’t trust anyone’s help with any of it, nor any contraption, nor any database, although I freely use such tools to see if my memories will be jogged or maybe a better route than the best one I might remember be revealed.

  • http://twitter.com/askSchwa Adam S

    Always having a backup of my system gives me confidence to “trust” software. But mainly my trust comes from other people who have publicly posted their thoughts about it. I believe that the internet hates when people give out false information, and those who do lose any trust because of it.

    • Sdeforest

       You bring up a very good point.  How do we decide to use something?  Generally an element of trust enters, and that is difficult to assess.  After all, successful confidence men/women work be first gaining out trust.  Science advances by rejecting trust in authorities, but old science itself becomes an authority.  Ultimately trust is an iffy thing.