EDITORIAL: Greetings to our Russian… friends?

HOW MANY OF YOU read and write in Russian? If you do have that admirable skill, what do you read? The works of the great Russian masters? Foreign policy articles? President Putin’s fan mail? What about newspapers from rural areas of the Russian Federation?

The question comes up because our website shows us the language used by the computers or mobile devices of our online visitors. Did you know that you reveal this information every time you visit a website? It’s a fraction of the data all of us surrender every time we go online. But getting back to Russia, we’ve had a surprisingly large number of computers set up for Russian that have visited www.columbiapaper.com in the last couple of months.

Most of our website visitors–we had over 9,000 of them last month–use U.S. English. After that, we see a smattering of computers set to English as spoken in Great Britain or Canada. But suddenly our second largest group of visitors (less than 2% of our total) were around 200 who use Russian language computers. The visits didn’t arrive in one burst but have persisted at a low but steady level, far outnumbering all our visits from computers set to any other language.

We’d like to greet these newcomers by saying, preevyet, the phonetic spelling of the Russian word for Hi! We’d love to know what it is we’re doing that interests you. We’d also like to remind our Russian speaking visitors that there’s more–we only upload parts of our print newspaper to our website.

Is The Columbia Paper online part of a Russian school project about life in America? We could tell them a lot about Columbia County if they could help us bridge the language barrier.

Our enthusiasm and curiosity assumes that this traffic blip on our website is benign. It seems reasonable the somebody beyond the continental U.S. might be interested in our paper and our county. Unfortunately, The New York Times and other media report that “state sponsored actors” from Russia are busy stealing digital information from this country’s government and private organizations to disrupt our national political process. That’s unacceptable, although it’s farfetched, bordering on paranoia to think we’re a target.

And yet, another measurement tool we have counts “blocked malicious login attempts.” We’ve had over 22,000 of those aimed at our website. It’s difficult to put that number in perspective. It may include the times someone here entered the wrong password. But it’s fair to assume that like most websites, ours has been probed by people eager to rip us off. We have cyber security but if sophisticated hackers in Moscow, Beijing, Pyongyang or… Poughkeepsie really wanted to break into our systems, eventually they could do it.

Hackers would be pretty disappointed in what we have. Our primary product–lots of ink spread out on dead trees each week–is so outdated that, as a practical matter, it can’t be hacked. As for the data we collect, newspaper veterans used to boast that all we knew about our readers was that they had a dollar a week and could read. Not anymore. Businesses can’t survive without knowing who their customers are and what they want; newspapers are no exception. But we still don’t keep much information about you individually nor do we share what little have.

This question of information also came up recently in connection with local voting. There’s likely to be a big turnout Election Day, November 8, because of the presidential race. But here there are also contested races for Congress and the state legislature. A handful of votes could sway outcomes.

It’s reassuring to know that in Columbia County your vote will be counted. That’s because the Democratic and Republican county election commissioners agree that the paper ballots voters place in electronic scanners will also be hand-counted for all contested offices. Problems don’t all originate with hackers. Sometimes the scanning machines malfunction. It doesn’t matter. No one can steal your vote.

Hand counting votes is slow and costly. The time it takes makes us voters impatient. Fast and cheap is how we live. We say we wish for a life that’s less frantic, then we text the details and heap them on others through social media. It’s true there aren’t many things worth waiting for, but an accurate vote count is one of them.

So we welcome our Russian speaking visitors: We’d love to hear your views on all of this. Poka!

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