When we think about cyberattacks, it’s easy conjure up images of a massive intelligence agency plotting to disable missile systems or shut down the electric grid.

But businesses here in Maine have been victims of small-scale cybercrimes. The target may well have been credit card numbers that could open their customers to a host of financial crimes.

These crimes may start small, but they can turn big in a hurry.

The biggest consumer data breach in U.S. history took place not at a government agency or huge bank, but in the parking lot of a Marshalls department store in Minnesota. Criminals used a directional antenna hidden in a Pringles potato chip can and a laptop computer to break into the store’s computer system and steal the personal data of 45 million customers

It turned out that the store’s employees had failed to use basic security procedures, such as protecting passwords and updating software systems. That made the business liable, and Marshalls’ owner paid nearly $2 billlion in restitution.

This is a frightening story in a world where we do so much business electronically. A decade ago, few people would buy a cup of coffee or an ice cream cone with a credit or debit card. Today it’s commonplace.

It is frightening to know that we open the door to our private records and assets every time we swipe a card.

The crooks no longer have to break into a bank to steal from us. All they need to do is linger outstide a coffee shop and help themselves to whatever they want if the information is not well protected.

Businesses that have benefitted from customers who spend freely with credit cards should take their responsibility seriously. If people lose confidence in their ability to use their these systems safely, that will mean less business activity. The onus is on stores that collect consumer information to protect it, using techniques that keep them ahead of the bad guys.

It’s also puts pressure on the financial institutions to develop more secure ways to conduct business electronically.

And if stories such as these aren’t scary enough, there’s always the nightmare scenario of large-scale cyberwars.

Imagine how much mayhem an enemy intelligence agency could achieve, if all that was needed for the biggest data breach in history was a laptop and a potato chip can.

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