The Fragile Digital World Described By Zeynep Tufkeci Invites Smashing

In “The Looming Digital Meltdown” (New York Times, January 7th), Zeynep Tufekci writes,

We have built the digital world too rapidly. It was constructed layer upon layer, and many of the early layers were never meant to guard so many valuable things: our personal correspondence, our finances, the very infrastructure of our lives. Design shortcuts and other techniques for optimization — in particular, sacrificing security for speed or memory space — may have made sense when computers played a relatively small role in our lives. But those early layers are now emerging as enormous liabilities. The vulnerabilities announced last week have been around for decades, perhaps lurking unnoticed by anyone or perhaps long exploited.

This digital world is intertwined with, works for, and is  used by, an increasingly problematic social, economic, and political post-colonial and post-imperial world, one riven by political crisis and  economic inequality, playing host to an increasingly desperate polity sustained and driven, all too often, by a rage and anger grounded in humiliation and shame. Within this world, all too many have had their noses rubbed in the dirt of their colonial and subjugated pasts, reminded again and again and again of how they are backward and poor and dispossessed and shameful, of how they need to play ‘catch  up,’ to show that they are ‘modern’ and ‘advanced’ and ‘developed’ in all the right ways.  The technology of the digital world has always been understood as the golden road to the future; it is what will make the journey to the land of the developed possible. Bridge the technological gap; all will be well. This digital world also brought with it the arms of the new age: the viruses, the trojan horses, the malwares, the new weapons promising to reduce the gaping disparity between the rich and the poor, between North and South, between East and West–when it comes to the size of their conventional and nuclear arsenals, a disparity that allows certain countries to bomb yet others with impunity, from close, or from afar. The ‘backward world,’ the ‘poor’, the ‘developing countries’ have understood that besides nuclear weapons, digital weapons can also keep them safe, by threatening to bring the digital worlds of their opponents to their knee–perhaps the malware that knocks out a reactor, or a city’s electric supply, or something else.

The marriage of a nihilistic anger with the technical nous of the digital weapon maker and the security vulnerabilities of the digital world is a recipe for disaster. This world, this glittering world, its riches all dressed up and packaged and placed out of reach, invites resentful assault. The digital world, its basket in which it has placed all its eggs, invites smashing; and a nihilistic hacker might just be the person to do it. An arsenal of drones and cruise missiles and ICBMS will not be of much defense against the insidious Trojan Horse, artfully placed to do the most damage to a digital installation. Self-serving security experts, all hungering for the highly-paid consulting gig, have long talked up this threat; but their greed does not make the threat any less real.

Mr. Panetta Warns of Danger And Would Like to Spy on You

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta comes a-calling, warning us of the dangers of cyberwarfare, of a new ‘Pearl Harbor’ that lies ahead. He conjures up devastating visions of the nation’s ‘cyber-infrastructure’ by a band of code warriors, sneaky rogues that could:

[D]erail passenger trains, or even more dangerous, derail passenger trains loaded with lethal chemicals. They could contaminate the water supply in major cities, or shut down the power grid across large parts of the country.

Terrifying stuff. Before I  stock up on tinned food, bottled water, spare batteries, toilet paper, ammunition, load up my shotguns, and head for the shelters, let me just, in passing, make a couple of minor observations.

1. The US been the most aggressive proponent of cyberwarfare in recent times, thus, as usual, serving as inspiration and inviting emulation and retaliation. As Steve Coll noted a while ago:

[David Sanger’s new book, “Confront and Conceal]describes a joint American-Israeli offensive cyber-attack operation in 2010 against Iran’s nuclear industry. The existence of the weapon used against Iran—a piece of malware called Stuxnet—was previously known, and there was rough knowledge of the authorship. Sanger, though, describes both—and President Obama’s hands-on role—more fully than any previous account. The attack was designed to disable Iranian centrifuges that enrich uranium. (The enriched uranium could ultimately be used to make nuclear bombs.) Cyber Command and the 24th Air Force presumably played at least a supporting role, along with the National Security Agency, although it remains unclear exactly who did what in the operation, which may be continuing.

The operation’s code name—“Olympic Games”—suggests some of the complacency and self-satisfaction among the President’s advisers…..“Olympic Games” seems to be, so far as is known, the first formal offensive act of pure cyber sabotage by the United States against another country, if you do not count electronic penetrations that have preceded conventional military attacks, such as that of Iraq’s military computers before the invasion of 2003.

2. The proper reaction to any pronouncement from post-911 administrations, when their officials come calling to warn us of dangers that lurk ‘out there’, should be–given their track record and sustained erosion of civil liberties–unbridled skepticism. With that in mind, note the following:

Mr. Panetta said President Obama was weighing the option of issuing an executive order that would promote information sharing on cybersecurity between government and private industry. But Mr. Panetta made clear that he saw it as a stopgap measure and that private companies, which are typically reluctant to share internal information with the government, would cooperate fully only if required to by law.

“We’re not interested in looking at e-mail, we’re not interested in looking at information in computers, I’m not interested in violating rights or liberties of people,” Mr. Panetta told editors and reporters at The New York Times earlier on Thursday. “But if there is a code, if there’s a worm that’s being inserted, we need to know when that’s happening.”

This roughly translates to: We are not interested in spying on the citizenry, but under the right circumstances, which we alone will determine, possibly on the basis of vague, unspecified, broadly stated, indeterminate intelligent reports that we will not let you, the affected citizenry, be privy to, we will be very interested in spying. At that moment, we expect our favorite poodles to roll over and beg to be tickled.

Here is a vague warning of danger, one that we might have brought upon our heads by our own reckless actions. May we have your civil liberties, please?