• Money comes in many forms. Are paper bills or checks the safest way to pay? (U.S. Army photo by Kristen Wong)
     Money comes in many forms. Are paper bills or checks the safest way to pay? (U.S. Army photo by Kristen Wong)

We’re Writing Checks—Money Is in Our Pockets

The Cyber Edge
August 4, 2017
By David E. Meadows

Traditional checkbooks provide a new type of financial cybersecurity.

In 2005, NBC News reported that the use of checks to pay bills was declining and that the majority of people writing them were old geezers such as me. That year, the Federal Reserve reported that an estimated 36 billion checks were written, with more than half of those paper checks written by consumers.

I’m a consumer and a baby boomer—an individual born between mid-1946 and mid-1964. Writing a check is something we boomers do. I was taught in 1965 in high school how to write checks, balance a checkbook and keep track of my bank account. It was a classroom activity.

There were 78.2 million baby boomers in 2005. Alas, by 2015, the number of checks written was down to 10.4 billion, and the baby boomer population was down to 75.4 million. I am sure there is a connection here because the same year—on June 25, to be specific—the Census Bureau announced that the population of millennials passed us baby boomers, with 82.1 million people in the age bracket.

From my perspective, check writing is an individually controlled cybersecurity action destined to decline as the baby boomer generation ages and the younger generations grow more and more dependent on information technology as the financial method of choice. But, if the financial industry suffered a major cyber event that closed access to your money, how much cash would you have to live on? How much actual cash in your pocket would you have? And, if we reach a point where businesses only take virtual dollars, how could you spend the real ones? I know, I know … they’re called casinos.

Are any cyber financial systems in use today really safe, secure and sustainable against cyber attacks? Not a snowball’s chance. Even when new cybersecurity techniques and technologies designed to improve cybersecurity/information assurance appear on the horizon, it takes time to incorporate them into doctrine. Do you ever wonder why? It is because today’s cybersecurity world has instituted processes and requirements to ensure the most safe-secure-sustainable networks incorporating new cybersecurity methods, processes and technologies that move at paper speed, not cyber speed.

Take, for example, the NSA recognizing during its information assurance symposium in August 2016 that containment is part of the information assurance process. To the best of my knowledge, containment—also known as sandboxing—has yet to be incorporated as an integral part of government or business as a cybersecurity capability.  

The point missed by many is that writing checks, posting them in the U.S. mail and seeing them cashed on a paper invoice is the ultimate cybersecurity safeguard for the buying public. There are fewer mugged and forgetful mail handlers than there are cyber attacks.

Hold on and take a deep breath: Automatic debit makes the financial owner more of an observer than a partner. After all, why write a check when you can have someone else pay your bills with your money while you’re watching it on a screen? The answer is that writing checks can be said to be a baby boomer’s end-user containment action. Therefore, holding on tenuously to the option of using paper checks in the ever-expanding safe-secure-sustainable world of information technology (IT) is something our generation understands and knows how to protect.

Baby boomers grew up in the world of checks. Writing them makes us feel more in charge of our finances, and it is a non-IT action that comes with mailing them. And we could not care less about muses by IT experts pointing out the decline of writing checks.

By the way, check-writing actions also help the U.S. Postal Service business. 

David E. Meadows is a retired U.S. Navy captain and the author of the Sixth Fleet series, along with Seawolf, Joint Task Force Liberia, Tomcat, Final Run and other action-adventure novels.

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