Credit card numbers stolen: Your guide to freaking out

Molly Wood Apr 3, 2012

Up to 1.5 million credit card numbers for Visa and MasterCard accounts have been stolen from the databases of a company called Global Payments. It’s a payment processing company, kind of a middle man between the merchants and the banks. Global Payments handled over $120 billion in transactions last year alone.

But you aren’t going to see the name Global Payments on your credit card bill or imprinted on the card itself. So how will you know that you’re affected by this breach?

“There’s a couple ways you might find out,” says Ted Julian of the security company CO3 Systems. “You might get a letter from a merchant you did business with, that’s how your credit card ended up in this database. Or you might get a call from your credit card company that you’re issuing a new card.”

As for what you can do if you are affected, Julian says, “You’ll get a new card. And so any fraudulent charges are covered, that’s the good news. And the bad news is there will be some auto payments with old card and you’ll need to update info.”

The bad guys apparently were not able to get the names, addresses or Social Security numbers associated with the cards, which should reduce the risk of identity theft.

On a completely different subject, let’s talk about robots. If you need the floor vacuumed, you use a vacuum cleaner robot. What if you want to understand evolution? John Long says, same deal. He’s the author of “Darwin’s Devices: What Evolving Robots Can Teach Us About the History of Life and the Future of Technology.” Long’s a professor at Vassar College where he builds evolving robots.

“An evolving robot is a special kind of robot we designed to be like an animal, but has the ability to make children,” Long says.

Wait. Children?

“We set up a population of robots that have behavior. And we compete them in the game of life. It’s like ‘The Hunger Games‘ in our laboratory. And then we rank them and the winners get to reproduce. The reproduction I’m talking about happens in software. But we have genetics for our robots. Different characters are coded mathematically like genes, we reproduce them, mutate them, put them in a mating bucket and we produce instructions for making next generation of those robots.”

Besides being jarred by the term “mating bucket,” I wanted to know about the competitions in which the bots compete.

“We’re interested in what are the selection pressures that drove evolution 500 million years ago in the first vertebrates,” says Long. “You and I are vertebrates and have backbones. We’re interested in how might those backbones have arisen? So we compete these fish-like robots in experiences they might have had 500 million years ago and it’s simple: eating and not being eaten.”

If Long wants to understand animals, why doesn’t he just study, you know, animals, instead of building robots?

“We do study animals, in fact, but there are only so many things you can do because animals are so complex. You pick what you want to model. (For instance,) fish-like robots. We don’t worry about them taking food in. We build a brain like the brain in fish, we given them eyes, lateral line, a tail that beats like a fish. But that’s it. Then when system does something in front of you, watching ‘The Hunger Games,’ then you can understand change because the system is simple enough to tease apart.”

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