The best part of missing Thanksgiving? Not dying of the plague. The worst part of missing Thanksgiving? Not being able to warn your relatives about the latest cyber scams and how to protect yourself against them.
Another Thanksgiving has come and gone in the United States. Much to my frustration, far too many people ignored the experts’ dire warnings and chose to visit their relatives, thereby vastly increasing the probabilities of both contracting and spreading COVID-19 at a time when our hospitals are running out of capacity to treat the most severe cases. Still, far more people did listen to reason and stayed home this year than ventured out. If we were going to give thanks for anything in 2020, it should be that: be grateful for the people who prioritized their community’s survival over their own selfish short-term need for face-to-face interaction. Still, this selfless sacrifice did introduce a new and unexpected short-term risk …
Before I go into details on the threat, though, let me come clean. I’ve never been a fan of American Thanksgiving. Spending days preparing and cooking for a massive feast that you’re too tired to then enjoy? There better be a wedding at the end of it or else it’s not worth it. Gorging on more food than any sane adult should consume? Thanks, no. Bloating and heartburn don’t strike me as anything to be “thankful” for. Watching hours of American football? Doesn’t matter how many bottles of wine the hostess opened; it won’t be enough to make football entertaining.
Sure, there’s a lot to be said for reconnecting with the family and friends you enjoy being around. For me, the best part of every Thanksgiving was the conversation we shared after the ephemera had been cleared away. The problem is, that component of Thanksgiving only happens when you carefully engineer your invitations to include only the people you enjoy chatting with … and most Thanksgivings can’t manage that.
Instead, American Thanksgiving is more of a social endurance test: how long can you keep your mouth shut and your face blank while someone at the table creates an unforgiveable scene. It’s so common an occurrence as to be a reliable trope in fiction: the drunk aunt who tells ribald stories, titillating the kids and horrifying their mothers … the angry uncle spoiling for a political argument to prove he’s still a big man … the aggrieved matriarch who detests everyone for ruining her “perfect” dinner … and, of course, the black sheep of the family who starts a brawl with their virulent racist tirades and insane conspiracy babble. Makes for great cringe comedy on the big screen, but it all ends in tears, recriminations, and life-long grudges in the real world. No one has fun (save, perhaps, for the little kids who learn some prurient new vocabulary words).
If I’m honest, my all-time favourite Thanksgiving was the one I spent deployed to the desert. The mess hall served turkey instead of biryani for dinner and then we went back to work. Even the scud missile the Iraqis lobbed at us couldn’t ruin the mood. Good times …
Anyway, Thanksgiving. I’m not a fan. I’d rather have a civil, rational discussion over a normal, low-stress dinner than a fight in front of somebody claiming to be my third-cousins (twice removed). So, too, it seems do a lot of my neighbours. In talking with folks about their holiday plans, a refreshingly large percentage of the people I know have curtailed or outright cancelled their traditional plans because they want to avoid contact with their families and friends. Not because of COVID-19 (although that is a factor), but to avoid the horrid arguments they know have been brewing for months now. The USA has gotten so violently polarized over the last five years – thanks, Vlad! – that our families and social groups have been split into militant camps. If anything, the pandemic quarantine has been a godsend for reducing intrafamily feuding.
That’s been great for keeping people both (a) uninfected and (b) un-arrested this Thanksgiving. Don’t put yourself into a position where a fight can happen and there probably won’t be a fight. Genius. Fewer people hauled to the A&E for bludgeoning injuries has helped reduce pressure on our already-stressed ICU wards. Fewer people in lockup pending charges of “domestic rioting” has reduced community transmission. Unfortunately, it’s also made it much more likely that our friends and relatives will be fall victim to online scammers this Christmas season.
Does that seem crazy? I understand why you’d think to. Hear me out: recall that I compared a normal Thanksgiving to a social endurance test. Every American adult eventually comes to realize that the Thanksgiving dinner table is a powder keg. For survival’s sake, they work together to strives to pre-empt potential arguments by channelling all conversation threads to non-controversial topics. “Let’s take a break from politics, Uncle Bob. I want to hear more from Alice about this new phishing scam that pretends to come from Amazon.fr.”
This has been a popular dodge for Americans of all political persuasions since the 1990s made home computers common. Traditionally, American Christmas mania begins the moment the Thanksgiving dishes are washed. Talking about shopping plans and how to avoid scammers becomes a conversational refuge … everyone can participate. It’s also an excellent way to educate your less technically savvy relatives on how to detect and disengage from deception-based attacks. Everyone goes home full of dry turkey, plonk, and useful cybersecurity knowledge.
For better or worse, we’re losing that opportunity to educate our loved ones this year. As people avoid large family gatherings like the actual plague, they’re also cutting off a valuable avenue for spreading the gospel of basic security hygiene. This is likely going to be a huge boon for criminals, as they have a target population that’s under-educated on this year’s attacks, that’s emotionally high-strung from months of social chaos, and is therefore highly susceptible to the emotion provocation from a well-crafted phish. Damned if you dine, damned if you don’t.
So, what are we to do? I don’t recommend that any American emerge from their suburban bunker until a trustworthy vaccine is comprehensively deployed. Instead, I advise we keep in touch with out remote loved ones through sharing links for online cybersecurity training, posting funny security memes, encouraging one another to follow popular security evangelists on social media, and circulating helpful alert notices. We still need to help one another stay safe over the holidays. We’re keeping one another alive by not bringing the novel coronavirus into their homes and lungs. Let’s keep one another fiscally solvent as well.
After all, health insurance in America is darned expensive. Just don’t mention that around Uncle Bob; I don’t want to grit my teeth though another hour-long diatribe about how “Obamacare” is how the more people from the earth’s core will put fluoride in our sports drinks.