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The Internet

The Vulnerability of Our Tech-Dependent World 170

XorNand writes: "Foreign Policy magazine has an interesting article regarding the ever-increasing vulnerability of our tech-dependant society. We're easy prey because of two key trends: First, the growing technological capacity of small groups and individuals to destroy things and people; and, second, the increasing vulnerability of our economic and technological systems to carefully aimed attacks. While commentators have devoted considerable ink and airtime to the first of these trends, they've paid far less attention to the second, and they've virtually ignored their combined effect."
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The Vulnerability of Our Tech-Dependent World

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  • by Nick Number ( 447026 ) on Saturday February 02, 2002 @11:11AM (#2941959) Homepage Journal
    Two mighty warrior tribes went to war,
    and touched off a blazed which engulfed them all.
    Without fuel they were nothing.
    They built a house of straw,
    a thundering machine sputtered and stopped.
    Their leaders talked, and talked, and talked.
    But nothing could stem the avalanche.
    Their world crumbled,
    cities exploded,
    a whirlwind of looting,
    a firestorm of fear,
    men begin to feed on men.
    On the roads it was a white line nightmare,
    only those mobile enough to scavenge,
    brutal enough to pillage, would survive.
    The gangs took over the highways,
    ready to wage war for a tank of juice.
    And in this maelstrom of decay
    ordinary men were battered and smashed.
    Men like Max.
    The warrior Max.
    In the roar of an engine, he lost everything.
    And became the shell of a man.
    A burnt out desolate man.
    A man, haunted by the demons of his past.
    A man who wandered out into the wasteland.
    And it was here, in this blighted place, that he learned to live again.
  • by Nesdroc ( 555646 ) on Saturday February 02, 2002 @11:11AM (#2941960)
    People (ore so those being born now and closer to now) have accepted our technology with surprising ignorance. They don't know how it works, but it's there, and they use it. Consider: someone is a t the grocerie store. The automatic door fails to open; they walk into a pane of glass. Do they attempt to open the door manually? NO. Stupid people (us). Unless our society begins to learn about how to function on a more basic level, also living with new technology, we may be in for big problems down the line.
    • I think that's a rather alarmist and elitist viewpoint. There are countless specialists in the world, and learning all of their crafts would be impossible. I wouldn't even know how to do something simple like paving a road. The complex world we live in necessitates using technology we don't fully understand. There are great programmers out there who have zero concept of machine code. The beauty of division of labor is that we don't need 50 years of education to contribute to the world.
      • by Anonymous Coward
        People are not expected to fulling understand how computers or anything else complex works but they should at lease understand basics. However people dont and they dont try they demand someone else do it for them and this is where the problem exists I think. I am not a mechanic nor can I pave a road, but I can read. So instead of paying some guy too much money to change my oil I read a book (or some sort of manual)and now I change my own oil. If I had to pave a road I would read about it and if I still could not do it at lease I would know what things to ask a contractor and I would be more infomed. Here is a fact in January of 1999 a Gallup poll ranked foreign policy 20th on a list of things that mater most to the American people now look where we are now.
    • by Catiline ( 186878 ) <akrumbach@gmail.com> on Saturday February 02, 2002 @12:00PM (#2942155) Homepage Journal
      I don't think there's a name for this, but I call it the "Expert Syndrome"- when faced with an "expert", people who ought to know better often take their opinions as fact (sometimes even ignoring their own personal experiences). This is even encouraged by public schools, who don't teach the proper ways to construct a logical argument any more (just the format of the 5 paragraph essay).

      The cure is, of course, to get people to think on their own about things. You say people have problems with tech; well I think that's a load of manure. The problem is people who don't think on their own- because that is the one job that cannot be specialized to a small part of the population. Teach a man to speak, and you have a slave to the ideas of others. Teach a man to think, and you have crafted a free mind.

      The problem with tech is just one step removed; when people can't articulate what they think, they are afraid to think at all. (And thus, they feel and act helpless without an expert.)
    • "Consider: someone is at the grocery store. The automatic door fails to open; they walk into a pane of glass. Do they attempt to open the door manually? NO. Stupid people."

      You shouldn't be mean just because Bart sold his soul [snpp.com] and couldn't open the door to the Kwik-E-Mart.

    • ... it would have it's own gravitational field.

      We go about our everyday lives not knowing how many things around us work (gravity is one that comes to mind). That's been the way of our civilization since it's beginnings. We used to think the world was flat and that we were the center of the universe. We used to think the Gods decided our fate when we were born by snipping the thread that was sewed into the fabric of the world. And we went about our lives anyway and were modestly succesful.

      Just because we didn't know we weren't on the edge of the cosmos revolving around our (to us) stationary star, didn't keep us from growing food or raising animals with the seasons. Just because we didn't understand about trade winds and tidal forces didn't keep us from sailing around the world.

      Ignorance is a fact of life. Not knowing how things work is nothing new. Not knowing what to do when the things you count on fail is a common problem. But that same person who, the first time the door fails, gets beffudled and stuck, the next time the door fails will have found a solution. That's how we got out of the trees in the first place.

      Of course, if you want to be gloomy and doomy, who am I to stand in your way.

      Sweat
  • by jmerelo ( 216716 ) on Saturday February 02, 2002 @11:16AM (#2941975) Homepage Journal
    If you can't keep anybody else from developing their own technology, you'll finally fall prey to them. The romans depended on their technology: roads, farming, construction, until the barbarians, using those same roads, arrived to Rome itself and captured it.
    • Ok, seeing the answers to this message, maybe I didn't make my message clear enough. Paul Kennedy, in his book Rise and Fall of Great Powers [amazon.co.uk], states that technology is determinant in the rise and, well, the fall of civilizations. Civilizations with higher technology normally overcome those with a lower technology, and any technological superiority is key in obtaining and maintaining superiority.

      But technology is like water, you can't keep it in your hands. And besides, it works both ways: anybody can use it to its own profit.
    • The technologies that gave the Romans their advantage weren't things like roads and construction, they were organisational technologies like distributed command structures and military discipline. And Rome fell because they lost those technologies, not because others acquired them.

      Similarly, the technologies that give the West its edge aren't nukes and stealth bombers, they're freedom of communication and democracy. And the danger isn't that the enemy will acquire them, because they would then cease to be the enemy -- it's that the West will lose them.
      • Similarly, the technologies that give the West its edge aren't nukes and stealth bombers, they're freedom of communication and democracy. And the danger isn't that the enemy will acquire them, because they would then cease to be the enemy

        This dosn't appear to exactly be the case, "the West" and especially the USA, has been perfectly prepared to crush developing democratic governments.
    • The romans depended on their technology...

      Gibbon lists [his.com] the following reasons for the fall of the Roman Empire:

      • the long period of peace and the uniform government of the Romans gradually extinguished the industry and creativeness of the people, as well as the military discipline and valour of the soldiers
      • the indulgence in luxury, which originally remained confined to the nobles and residents of the Imperial Court, was later extended to the troops, totally corrupting their morals
      • the enrolment of mercenary barbarians in the armies, which served to excuse the Roman themselves from military responsibilities, at the same time encouraged the barbarians within the Empire to grow in power and influence
      • the multiplication of oppressive taxes was countered and evaded by the rich, who shifted the burden to the poor, who in turn also dodged them and fled to the woods and mountains to become Rome's rebels and robbers
      • Christianity, which sapped the faith of the people in the official (pagan) religion, thereby undermining the state which that religion supported and blessed
      • the barbarian invasions.

      Barbarians exploiting Roman technology to Rome's detriment would not appear to be as significant as these other factors.

  • not quite... (Score:2, Interesting)

    XorNand writes: "Foreign Policy magazine has an interesting article regarding the ever-increasing vulnerability of our tech-dependant society. We're easy prey because of two key trends: First, the growing technological capacity of small groups and individuals to destroy things and people; and, second, the increasing vulnerability of our economic and technological systems to carefully aimed attacks. While commentators have devoted considerable ink and airtime to the first of these trends, they've paid far less attention to the second, and they've virtually ignored their combined effect."

    i dont believe our systems are any more vulnerable than before, just easier accessed. quite contrary, security, forensics, and other "government" techniques/skills has increased 10-fold. it is always "scary" to think that anyone with the right skills could crack into our government computers..but then again the keyword is skills. a viable solution would probably be to increase tech national budget...although i doubt thats happening anytime soon.

    • I'm of the opinion that it's impossible to fend off every sufficiently sophisticated attack. What we can do is implement basic security measures that prevent any old lunatic from causing mass destruction. And I think that's (rightly) been the focus of the security of the community for some time.

      It's the same deal with software piracy. Determined crackers will always be able to get free software. Software companies are better off making sure Grandma can't get their programs for free on Kazaa.
      • but..wouldnt there be an "old lunatic" that knew his stuff? Imagine him belonging to Al Qaeda where they have actual intent.
        One word: Kaboom.

        • Like I said, if someone knows their stuff well enough, there's no way to stop them. Oh, I suppose you could return to the Stone Age so that no one can use your own technology against you, but that's an idea that only the Unabombers of the world take seriously.

          What we can do is stop the suicidal 16 year-old who wants to blow up his whole city. Or the right-wing nut who wants to blow up a federal building with fertilizer. Those kinds of attacks are preventable.
          • Oh, I suppose you could return to the Stone Age so that no one can use your own technology against you,

            Have to go back quite a bit further, whilst neolithic weapons might not have the range or fire rate of modern firearms, they are quite effective.
      • <I>I'm of the opinion that it's impossible to fend off every sufficiently sophisticated attack. What we can do is implement basic security measures that prevent any old lunatic from causing mass destruction.</I><BR><BR>You need to be able to realise what the actual risks are. Otherwise you can end up doing something analagous to putting a lock on a tent or putting a very strong door in the middle of a field.
    • it is always "scary" to think that anyone with the right skills could crack into our government computers..but then again the keyword is skills. a viable solution would probably be to increase tech national budget...although i doubt thats happening anytime soon.

      This whole subject is stupid. To take your example, in the middle ages, the same problem existed. The key was the "skills" involved were either being able to read, or whoring your way into a lord's bed. If anything, we're *more* robust than before, as we have many more levels of predefined fallback leaders. Kings have been assassinated for milliena, and the countries sometimes toppled as a result. America has lost two presidents, and the government wasn't hurt. And, as horrible and unthinkable the possibility might be, a nuke going off in NYC will have little affect on my internet connection, the automatic doors at my local grocery store, the fuel tankers getting gas to my local gas station, or any of the things being dicussed under this article.

      Quite frankly, terrorists are limited to sharp, horrifying strikes. A massive army rolling across another country; firestorms in the cities and plague in the feeling survivors - that will cause collapse, yes, but Europe was rebuilt with no loss of culture or scientific achievement. Losing a few cities or leaders is not going to cause the loss of achievement to date.

      "Hacking" into computers is not going to cause horrible results - almost all of those military computers track how much ice cream needs to be loaded onto the Enterprise. The really good ones have lots and lots of essays on seceneros and tactics and projections. And even if a terrorist got, oh, say, how many SAM missles were allocated to a unit, then it dosen't do much good. Even if it's a opposing army, it has strictly limited usefulness, and that's the kind of information that's passed back and forth constantly in wartime, even way back to: "They have 14 archers, a score of armed men, and two mounts, m'lord".

      In short, what has changed? The targets that are chosen, not the relative value of them. Bomb a telco building, plague a stream - unless you're willing to back it up with hundreds of thousands of armed men, you're just putting a footnote in the history books... at the most starting a very one sided war (sound familiar?).

      --
      Evan

      • I agree. In the past, all you would have to do is burn down a village's grain silo or block a couple critical trade routes. Modern societies are more robust and better able to withstand and recover from an attack. Technology neither helps nor hurts attackers; it's agnostic. The main things that change are the targets and methods.
        • I agree. In the past, all you would have to do is burn down a village's grain silo or block a couple critical trade routes. Modern societies are more robust and better able to withstand and recover from an attack. Technology neither helps nor hurts attackers; it's agnostic. The main things that change are the targets and methods.

          this is the same as i noted above. the danger has increased as it is everyone has the tools and potentially knowledge to commit these acts. burning someone else's grain silo or trading wagon is not comparable to possible attacks these days, which could affect millions in the least.

        • I agree. In the past, all you would have to do is burn down a village's grain silo or block a couple critical trade routes. Modern societies are more robust and better able to withstand and recover from an attack. Technology neither helps nor hurts attackers; it's agnostic. The main things that change are the targets and methods.

          It is also a big factor how the technology is used. Used inappropriatly it can make a single failure far more serious. e.g. the USS Yorktown ended up with a single point failure because of being fitted with a computer system inadequate for the task.
          Another interesting senario is that there are different ways to connect up telephone switching centres. One way is to connect everything to a hub (possibly even a hierachical set of hubs.) However if the hub fails you don't have much of a telephone network. Indeed it's even possible that the lowest level parts of the network (the bits with telephone lines connected to them) are so "dumb" that they can't do anything without the hub being there. The alternative each connected to several other "switches" (though probably not fully connected) and at least capable of connecting calls between its own lines. Then even even if you end up with a failure resulting in disconnected bits of telephone network that's a lot more use than no telephone network at all.
    • If anything we were more vulnerable when technology was primitive. In the late 19th Century there was only a single railroad connecting the two coasts of the US. For some time there was only one transatlantic telegraph cable.

      Technology also makes us less vulnerable to certain well-publicized kinds of attack. Would you rather fight an epidemic with today's technology, or that of medieval Europe?

      What's increasing is our *awareness* of vulnerability.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    I read a lot of historical fiction[1]. I'm beginning
    to get the feeling that perhaps we are returning
    to the past, in a way.

    Nobody is safe from attack any more (i.e. Vikings
    can land anywhere on the coast, undetected), and
    where a small number of people (i.e. the Spanish
    Conquistadors in Mexico) can completly
    overturn an existing society.

    I guess technology has run some sort of course and
    gone from non-existant, to controlled only by
    large countries, to finally starting to be
    available to anyone, anywhere.

    Not really sure, just a thought that has
    been nagging me for a while.

    -- cary

    [1] Ok, laugh, but it is a lot of fun and you
    sometimes learn a little history in the process.
    • a small number of people (i.e. the Spanish Conquistadors in Mexico) can complet[e]ly overturn an existing society.

      The Conquistadors had a special advantage in that the natives were expecting them. The natives had a long-held and detailed prophecy about a white man arriving to be their messiah, and the representatives of the Roman Church matched the prophecies exactly in several important ways. In the best tradition of the Papacy, they responded to an open invitation into the natives' most sacred temple by locking the doors and massacring everyone inside, and so it went.

      It is Roman policy that heathen have no rights, so you can kill and lie to them as much as you like without even losing any brownie points. Atheists, Protestants, Jews and Mohammedans are considered heathen for the purposes of this exercise. In practice, the same rule applies to your minions and to competing orders within your church.

      it is a lot of fun and you sometimes learn a little history in the process.

      So it's a lot like SlashDot: set your bullshit filter on ``high'' and verify each fact elsewhere before believing it? I bet you still soak up an awful lot of misleading information as if it were gospel.
  • haves vs have nots (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Alien54 ( 180860 ) on Saturday February 02, 2002 @11:24AM (#2942006) Journal
    This is the timeless war between the haves and have nots. It is just that in the past, the have nots did not have the easy means to strike back.

    add in the mix the people who want you to do all the work so they can live easy ...

    So what you get is a mix of philosophies, some of them rather daffy or short sighted, that force the struggle over the long term

    • by leonbrooks ( 8043 ) <SentByMSBlast-No ... .brooks.fdns.net> on Saturday February 02, 2002 @07:35PM (#2944066) Homepage
      This is the timeless war between the haves and have nots. It is just that in the past, the have nots did not have the easy means to strike back.

      To put this into focus: on 11 September 2001, five thousand Americans died by violence. On that day, and on all of the other days of 2001, an average of over six thousand children shat themselves to death, and over twenty four thousand people of all ages died of starvation.

      IMHO, when America collectively expresses at least the same outrage over 30,000 slow, inevitable, painful deaths every day as it does over 5000 deaths on only one day, the rest of the world (ie, the non-NATO nations) might start taking America as a country seriously.

      Until then, it seems evident that national pride is dear to America, and everyday pain and suffering are most definitely not.

      Yes, Americans give generously through charities, but so do a lot of other places, many of them at a much higher per-capita rate, and those other places seem less interested in tying control to the gifts.

      This is like totting up Bill Gates' charity donations and calling him a nice man because of it: but pro rata, the average American single mother gives more, and doesn't insist in her donations being named after her or being applied
      using only her technologies.

      Because Americans are human (like the rest of us), they generally can't see their own personal or collective deficiencies very well. If you are American - and offended by this post - tell me: is the offense a matter of blind pride with you, or am I really wrong in fact?
      • Fucking eh!

        I guess this is a me too, I'm just glad to get a little validation of what I've been thinking.
      • Yes, Americans give generously through charities, but so do a lot of other places, many of them at a much higher per-capita rate, and those other places seem less interested in tying control to the gifts.

        Also a rather large amount of donations from the US to other parts of the world (especially those which come via the US government) are to entities which are in no way "charities". Including dictators and terrorists. IIRC the nation the US provides most aid to is Israel, which is in the middle of a brutal civil war...

        This is like totting up Bill Gates' charity donations and calling him a nice man because of it: but pro rata, the average American single mother gives more, and doesn't insist in her donations being named after her or being applied using only her technologies.

        Hardly original, there is a story in the bible describing this.
  • Domino (Score:4, Insightful)

    by inerte ( 452992 ) on Saturday February 02, 2002 @11:26AM (#2942011) Homepage Journal
    There's also the tight integration of the world market, like stocks. Imagine if a determined group shuts down [random country]'s [financial institution].
    • It happens all the time. Argentina's financial institutions have been shut down for nearly two months by now.
      • Argentina is one thing...
        But imagine a more important node. Like the London or Frankfurt or Tokyo stock exchange.

        The asian crisis a few years ago was just a tadste of what could happen.

        The globalization of bussines makes the overall system more vulnerable, since damages spread easily across the network.

    • Well, IIRC, the ARPANET was created to avoid just such a problem. A
      world-wide network of computers would be able to withstand an attack that
      would wipe out a local area.
  • by saintlupus ( 227599 ) on Saturday February 02, 2002 @11:26AM (#2942015) Homepage
    they've virtually ignored their combined effect.

    For the most part, the media has also ignored the possibility of keeping people from destroying things by not making them want to.

    Why were planes flown into the Pentagon and the Trade Center, for example, and not into targets in Ottawa and Toronto? Seems to me that answering that question would be much more helpful than assuming that things are targets and working from there.

    --saint
    • Hey, I wish someone would fly a plane into the American embassy. It looks like a boat, and it's a god-damned eye-soar and embarassment for Ottawa.
    • The argument that the WTC attacks were the result of an excess of world Americanism is like saying the holocaust was the result of too much world jewry.

      If you'd prefer that we Americans abandon Marshall Plan world policy and let the rest of the world wallow in hopeless poverty and instability, we'd be perfectly glad to accomodate your requests. Frankly, we're rather tired of fixing problems that are the result of countries not having the insight or courage to set up a government like ours.

      • Frankly, we're rather tired of fixing problems that are the result of countries not having the insight or courage to set up a government like ours

        A corrupt, corporate-influenced government like ours? Really, now lets think about this.
        Vietnam was caused by the fact that they wanted to use a communist government to unify their country, we of course can't have that, because its not "a government like ours." In Central and South America, as well as in Africa, the CIA practiced numerous assassinations and overthrows of dictators of governments not "like ours," only to replace them with dictators who supported us but still were not democratic like us. However, they were corrupt like us, so perhaps thats what you mean by a government like ours. So, tell me this: how is it that you can think that what the world needs is MORE american influence, not just to be left alone ?
        • The American system IS corrupt, and has engaged in evil acts. These things I will not defend. Indeed, I would even be willing to amend my statement with the caveat:

          setting up a government like ours was originally.
          But opening up strip joints in Tehran is not quite in the same category as the Stalinist purges. On the whole, the only hope the people of the world have had for peace, justice, and freedom from oppression has been the United States.

          You can make impassioned arguments to the contrary, but the reality is that when bad things happen to virtually anybody in the world, I as an American citizen end up paying to clean up the mess.

          And as corrupt as we are, the fact remains that one is hard pressed to find a regime less corrupt than ours.

          Looks like the isolationists and anti-globalists are on the same side of the table. What do we do now?

        • A corrupt, corporate-influenced government like ours?

          What nation would really want one of those, given a free choice.

          Really, now lets think about this. Vietnam was caused by the fact that they wanted to use a communist government to unify their country, we of course can't have that, because its not "a government like ours."

          There is the obvious ironly that the USA was founded on the principle of a people being able to choose how to govern themselves

          In Central and South America, as well as in Africa, the CIA practiced numerous assassinations and overthrows of dictators of governments not "like ours," only to replace them with dictators who supported us but still were not democratic like us.

          Usually the results have been a lot less democratic than whatever was there before. Nor has it alwasy been a case of overthrowing a dictator. The first time this was done (just over a century ago) what was overthrown was a constitutional monarchy. In places you can compare the US constitution and the Hawaiian Kindom word for word.
          The relevent test appears to not so much be "a government like ours". So much as being for US government and US corporate interests.
          Blindly supporting a foreign government or foreign corporate interests does not go down too well in a democracy. People, quite rightly, expect their government to place their interests first. Otherwise they will protest, petition for a change of policy, vote people out of office (nationalism can motivate apathetic voters), etc.
          However where you have a puppet dictatorship the only option is a revolution. Which has a much higher chance of sucess without the "puppetmaster" being able to enforce the status quo.
    • And how do you propose we make terrorists "not want to attack?" There isn't any set of conditions that would satisfy the demands of the all the world's terrorists.

      Fundamentalism in its many forms isn't big on agreeing to disagree and respecting the right of others to dissent and do their own thing.

      The best we can hope for is a set of conditions that maximizes tolerence and minimizes the numbers of people motivated to commit terrorist acts. The citizens and govts. of the world are well aware of things they can do to move closer to this imperfect ideal (i.e. reduce crushing poverty). Citizens in democracies have a responsibility to themselves (as potential victims of terrorism) and to the world in general to ensure their govts. keep moving forward.
    • by Glytch ( 4881 ) on Saturday February 02, 2002 @02:22PM (#2942765)

      Why were planes flown into the Pentagon and the Trade Center, for example, and not into targets in Ottawa and Toronto?

      Because the hijackers hated Canadians and want us to suffer by leaving Parliament intact.

    • Why were planes flown into the Pentagon and the Trade Center, for example, and not into targets in Ottawa and Toronto?

      For that matter targets in London, Frankfurt, Tokyo and Hong Kong. (As well as New York.)
      If they were simply anti tall buildings the Petronus towers and the CN tower are taller than the WTC...
  • by mangu ( 126918 ) on Saturday February 02, 2002 @11:27AM (#2942017)
    Technology may be misused, but it also protects us from a lot of harm, both intentional and accidental. Our society is not vulnerable due to technology "per se", but due to overpopulation which has strained the world's resources. The only way technology puts us in danger is an indirect one: it allows a lot more people to live on those limited resources.
    • by grylnsmn ( 460178 ) on Saturday February 02, 2002 @12:09PM (#2942202)
      The Earth has not yet reached the end of its resources. There have been many studies that have shown that the earth is capable of supporting about five times its current population of humans (for a total of 25-30 billion people) just from the land masses alone (and not counting Antarctica). Even now, there is enough food grown in the world to meet the nutritional needs of every living being on Earth. We only lack the economic means to get it to each person and effectively distribute it.

      That is not counting the resources we can get from the ocean as well. Kelp is an amazingly nutritious food that could be grown quite cheaply.

      There are resources available, we only need to use them better.
      • "Kelp is an amazingly nutritious food that could be grown quite cheaply."

        I guess one day in the future I'll have to keep reminding myself of that....

        "Honey, what's for dinner?"

        "Kelp synth-o-steaks."

        "Ah, crap."

        (grits teeth,mutters to self) "kelp-is-an-amazingly-nutritious-food. kelp-is-an-amazingly-nutritious-food."
  • Never fear! (Score:3, Interesting)

    by OverCode@work ( 196386 ) <overcode AT gmail DOT com> on Saturday February 02, 2002 @11:30AM (#2942031) Homepage
    We're vulnerable now, but don't worry! Congress can just pass a few laws making it illegal to talk or think about technical vulnerabilities, and we'll all be safe. I feel better already.

    (I'm only half kidding... rather than develop secure cell phone technology, the phone industry got some laws passed making it illegal to make, sell, or even discuss the workings of scanners with the ability to receive the cell phone frequency range -- nevermind the fact that you can do this with an old UHF TV from before the frequencies were reallocated! The result? An INCREDIBLY vulnerable phone network, but the ability to legally fuck anyone who pissed the wrong people off. This was a topic of discussion at the SE2600 404 meeting last night...)

    -John
  • by jfrumkin ( 97854 ) on Saturday February 02, 2002 @11:30AM (#2942034) Homepage
    While we should continue to look at the possibility of these types of attacks, I worry that we are moving towards a mindset of mass hysteria in relation to terrorism. Remember back in the 80's when the child-care/abuse hysteria occured? That hysteria turned out to be mostly FUD. While not downplaying the seriousness of recent terror attacks and possibilities, it is important to remember that FUD can make things worse, not better....
  • Interesting stuff, but by no means new. While serving with specials weapons battalions in Europe in the mid-seventies, during the height of terrorism there, our military intelligence advisors sounded the alarm then about our (the US) vulnerability to terrorist attack. Typically, our government does not respond proactively to these sorts of threats, only reactively when something happens here at home. There is now a terrorist threat under every bed, but lets all at least try to keep in mind that as awful as the terrorist attack in New York was, the structure of our nation was never in danger. Part of the reason for the continued health of our system (individuals like Cheney and Bush aside) is that it is spread out over a large land area. We can still take some fairly small steps to help safeguard things like our power grid, but I doubt that industry or government will be proactive to a reasonable degree; they will either go overboard and focus on the wrong area, or simply wait for something to happen, and then panic. All in all, though, we have survived a time when terrorism was much more advanced, composed of much more educated and well-funded group of European terrorists, and we have survived the attack on New York. Now, instead of realistically looking at simple measures we could take to help maintain our security, Bush and company have decided to start a world war for revenge; or perhaps a world war to draw attention away from his own lack of ethics or economic leadership ability. Wait a minute, using a tragic and senseless act of violence to fool people into thinking he is a powerful leader, isn't that sort of a working definition of a terrorist?
  • I'm worried about when our every day appliances are all networked together and can be accessed by something like a computer or a handheld. What's to keep a hacker from getting into it and screwing with your everyday life? Sure that shower feels good now, but what about when the hot water is turned up all the way and you are getting steam-cooked (I know, most intelligent people would have jumped out/turned the water off in a matter of seconds, but it could happen)? Or just something like your refrigerator. I don't remember where I read it (it was probably from here), but I remember reading about a refrigerator that could tell you what you needed while you were at the store through wireless communication. It wouldn't be anything major, but you most likely spent a lot of money and wouldn't appreciate it when your fridge tells you to pick up "a TV for it to make sweet love to."

    So this may seem a bit exaggerated, but it still wouldn't surprise me to see aggrivations like this happen once everything is networked. I'm not against the technology, I think it would be awesome to tell, for instance, your coffee to start brewing before you get home.
  • Sure (Score:3, Insightful)

    by NiftyNews ( 537829 ) on Saturday February 02, 2002 @11:34AM (#2942049) Homepage
    Well yeah, sure. There isn't a single piece of technology that isn't a double edged sword. Computerized processes are faster and more accurate, but on the flip side they require fewer jobs. A screw can be used to build a house or a handgun. A car can cut our travel time by many hundreds of hours each year, or can be filled with explosives and used to kill.

    What's the new viewpoint in this article again?
    • There isn't a single piece of technology that isn't a double edged sword. Computerized processes are faster and more accurate, but on the flip side they require fewer jobs.

      This is not intrinsically a bad thing. Only in a society where those squeezed out of employment must starve rather than, say, study to follow their interests. Only in a society where technological advances line the pockets of the wealthy.
  • by sam_handelman ( 519767 ) <skh2003&columbia,edu> on Saturday February 02, 2002 @11:38AM (#2942074) Homepage Journal
    the increasing vulnerability of our economic and technological systems to carefully aimed attacks....[is] paid far less attention.

    We must not have been reading the same newspapers.

    Nuclear power plants are certianly a technological system. [nytimes.com]

    Virginia is looking into vulnerabilities in it's water treatment system. [nytimes.com]

    The Net is so choked with "advice" (advertisements) on how to make the computer end of your business somehow sabotage tolerant that it tends to drown out other related topics; they do this on google which means people are reading them.

    Now, these are not problems that suggest knee-jerk, civil-rights-violating "solutions" that get us, slashdotters, up in arms. So, they are not as well covered here.

    Solving these problems requires 1) a lot of money, and 2) action (presumably forced by regulation) on the part of a lot of conservative, well moneyed, powerful people. So, the political cost in proposing a real solution, say, to hacking vulnerabilities in our financial system, is a lot higher than the political cost of raising the sentences for "computer terrorists."

    So, yes, the real problems recieve less attention from politicians. I don't think that is true of journalists or of the general public.
  • by justsomecomputerguy ( 545196 ) on Saturday February 02, 2002 @11:54AM (#2942130) Homepage
    You can't guard against EVERYTHING but we certainly need to do a better job of guarding against the most likely things to go wrong and/or responding to them when they do.

    Sometimes that means being willing to pay alot more for more backup systems and/or better trained personnel to prevent bad situation "x" from happening in the first place, sometimes that means being willing to tie up a lot of resources just waitng to respond in case bad situation "x" ever happens. And sometimes it means taking a step back and asking why some system is set up the way it is in the first place and saying it is better to change the basic way that we depend on system such and such.

    One thought that struck me as I was reading the article was that guarding against stupidity is -almost- the same as guarding against terrorism but that it is not given nearly as much priority. I mean, think of how much power was concentrated in the hands of the poorly screened and basically unmonitored captain of the Exxon Valdes and how having a few simple safeguard procedures in place would have saved a huge chunk of America from devistation. I mean, its one thing to worry about what are the most likely coordinated attacks on our infrastructure andtry to prevent them, that IS a very good thing to do, but lets not lose sight of the fact that we need to spend at least as much time thinking about how to prevent really stupid things from happening too.
  • by hacksoncode ( 239847 ) on Saturday February 02, 2002 @12:00PM (#2942154)
    It occurs to me that the biggest contributor to this problem, at least on the computer side, is the fact that the vast majority of people use computers running 1 operating system.

    Monocultures like this in the biolgical world are known to be extrememly vulnerable to attacks from (biological) viruses and parasites, and it's no less true with computers.

    On the other hand, I'm not sure that anything can be done about this problem. It's inherently more efficient for lots of people to use the same computing platform (it certainly doesn't have to be a hack like Windows, but a monoculture of Java or C# or whatever platform independent system you like is just as vulnerable).

    Linux, with it's many distro's is something of a move in the right direction, but there are portability problems between Linii (not to mention their various windowing systems) as well as advantages.

    But there are all sorts of dangerous monocultures (or near monocultures) out there that are really hard nuts to crack: sendmail, web browsers, instant messaging clients, and peer-to-peer systems. I mention these because they are also examples of systems where you really want a monoculture for the compatibility advantages, and because they are largely independent of OS.

    Obviously, the use of protocol standards with many different implementations is a good idea. But all examples of this being done in the past have still resulted in the vast majority of people using 1 implementation (or one of a small branch of implementations).

  • Read the article, was surprised to find little news in it; the ultra-right wing survivalists have been sending the same message for years (along with quite a few other ones, ahem): our energy infrastructure is vulnerable. Sure, our latest tech toys depend on the juice, but so do the basics, like home heating and AC, and pre-wireless communications.

    And that's just part of the picture; ask anyone who has had their water service interrupted for more than a day; no water means no hygiene and no hydration (once any handy supplies of drinkables are exhausted). No hygiene means an increase in the spread of disease, long term. Attack the basics, and it all adds up to a heck of a lot more than just our technology going down.

  • Overly Alarmist? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by dragons_flight ( 515217 ) on Saturday February 02, 2002 @12:07PM (#2942188) Homepage
    Okay 9-11 was bad. It changed the US and quite possibly the world in some ways forever, but seriously that article makes it sound like it's the end of the world.

    Biological and chemical terrorism is scary, but most of the tech terrorism they suggest seems to range from FUD to fantasy. If Al-Qaida, or anyone else could really destroy American infrastructure they would done it already. I'm sure they want to. Tell me where is America? Is it something that any amount of cleverness could blow up?

    Look around, we can quickly replace or compensate for the lost of any of our technology. It's may be the information age, but the people that run society aren't going to keel over and die because that information gets cut off temporarily. Sure there are inviting targets and greater capacity for homemade weapons, but judging from history, each individual terrorist gets only a few good attacks before he's caught or killed.

    The trick is not producing an unworkable situation where there is a continual string of terrorists. Rather than devoting our energies to securing an endless string of details, which aren't so essential, it would be far more sensible to work on overcoming the culture of antagonism that supports outbreaks of organized multi-national terrorism.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday February 02, 2002 @12:10PM (#2942207)
    We're a nation of idiots. Rather than change our behavior we look to ways of minimzing the impacts. When it comes to disease, we don't invest in vaccines, we create drugs that reduce the symptoms AFTER you've contracted the illness.

    Similarly with terrorism. It's something I learned in grade school but apparently spoiled rich kids never picked up: STOP PISSING PEOPLE OFF ALL THE TIME and it's pretty likely they won't try smacking you. I keep hearing people say that we should emulate the Israeli example of dealing with terrorism. I have two things to say in response to that:

    1) I hope we never have to lead the life that the Israelis live because whatever they're doing is only making their lives worse.

    2) Put yourself in the shoes of a Palestinian for just one minute and think of what you would do and how you would respond. I mean the actor James Woods came out with some racist blather (diaper heads) about how he would wipe them off the face of the earth [zap2it.com] without perhaps realizing that he sounds no different from the people in that part of the world who had the exact same reaction to their greivances with us.
  • by SlackMeister ( 137105 ) on Saturday February 02, 2002 @12:12PM (#2942217)
    ...when it makes its main point, which is not so much that our physical plant is vulnerable as that (nonsensically, IMHO) the internet, cable news etc. makes our entire society into one superconsciousness that instantly spreads fear and doubt throughout the nation in the event of a terrorist attack. I'd remind them that the first thing the internet spread on 9-11 was the news that airplanes were being crashed into buildings, which then caused the passengers on one airplane to fight it into the ground rather than become pawns for raghead assholes.

    Beware of doomsayers, esp. in the foreign policy/diplomacy community as these are the same people who managed to miss the fact that 60% (according to polls) of the "arab street" approves of terrorism including 9-11, and hopes there will be more of it. They don't know their head from a hole in the ground...
    • Cyber terrorism is not a big threat. Critical systeems break, you anoy a few customers, the market hickups, and you fix the critical systems. It's just not that big a deal.

      The combination of technological dependance and technological ignorance dose have another effect which none of these Ashcroftian terrorist threat mongers will discuss: Corperations userping power from the people and governments.

      Make no mistake we are going through a second "industrial revolution" along with all the negitive side effects like rober barons (Bill Gates), political bosses (corperate campaign contributions), and control of large corperations over minutia of people's lives (DeCSS, DMCA, etc.). This wave of problems is caused by corperations "getting their first" with respect to new technology.

      The two fundamental technological development which are driving this wave of problems are: globilization and computers / media technology. (Yes, globilization and even trade are technologies) We must be willing to take back control over these technologies from the corperations which got there first. A few ideas to help (and incurage) are OSS, global unions, sale of foreign films in the US, not sacrificing understanding for user friendliness in software (i.e. make your kids use an OS they will learn from, not Windows), independent media sources, global enviromental policy, P2P, and even camwhores (independent entertainment media).

      Jeff

      btw> Various social factors, like Thacher style backlash to excessive socialism in Europe and eradication of anti-monopolgy laws (to allow American companies to grow to the same size as Japanese companies), is making this wave of problems worse then necissary.

    • 60% (according to polls) of the "arab street" approves of terrorism including 9-11, and hopes there will be more of it.

      What polls and were are you getting your "facts"? Don't make generalizations unless you have something concrete to stand on.
  • by Bowie J. Poag ( 16898 ) on Saturday February 02, 2002 @12:14PM (#2942231) Homepage


    While the original article raises some good points, its awfully one-sided in its view of technology's impact on life. Here's my laundry list:

    1) This article confuses the notion of personal safety with "comfort". Television is not a necessity, nor is radio, or the Internet, or your cell phone, or any telephone for that matter. These are luxuries, and having to go without them will not kill you. Yes, you'll be unhappy having to go without them, but unless you're deprived of the basics, you'll survive. If someone took it all away from you, you'de be confused for a while until you realized you dont need a radio, a television, a net connection or a telephone to obtain the information you need.

    2) Step back and realize for a moment that 99.9999999% of mankind's life here on Earth has been spent without access to cell phones, televisions, net connections, and the Internet. Add to that, no lights, no heat, no AC, no electricity of any sort, no access to organized health care, no weather prediction, no food sanitation, etc. Having to go a week without your N'Sync ring-tones will not cause you to die, and if it does, we're all probably better off without you.

    3) Nature takes care of the numbers game. In the event of any catastrophe, people will begin to immediately align themselves within groups. In any ecosystem, you have Rioters, Liabilities, Parasites, Cooperatives and Hibernators. All of the above will die off except the Cooperatives since their dependency upon their environment is one-sided.Cooperatives establish multiple dependencies in multiple directions so that in the event any one of those dependencies will fail, they can depend upon one of the others. Not only do they have a way to overcome the problem, but they have their choice of approaches.

    4) Technology presents itself as an advantage to the Cooperative, as it allows the member of the Cooperative to establish greater levels of redundancy. The member of the Cooperative can tether himself to his ecosystem in never and more varied ways to ensure his own survival. To all the other types of organisms, technology is either useless or threatening.

    Wherever you have a single point of failure, you're going to have nervous people. Technology, by its very nature, makes a scenario such as the one presented in the article an impossiblity. It amounts to more of a "discomfort" than a legitimate threat to health and well-being.

    • Step back and realize for a moment that 99.9999999% of mankind's life here on Earth has been spent without access to cell phones, televisions, net connections, and the Internet

      I know I'm being pedantic here, but the above statement is not true. The reason it's not true is that 99.9999999% is overstating the case by quite a bit. 99.999% is a actually still a bit high, but not too bad. 99.99% is probably nearer to the mark. If we assume that humans have been around for 1 million years (we haven't, at least not in modern form) and assume that we've had all of the above gadgets for 10 years (it's been longer than that), then the result is 99.999%. Keeping the assumption of 10 gadget-filled years, we would have to have been around for 10 *billion* years for the nine nines statement to be true.

    • This article confuses the notion of personal safety with "comfort". Television is not a necessity, nor is radio, or the Internet, or your cell phone, or any telephone for that matter. These are luxuries, and having to go without them will not kill you.
      Telephones are not a luxury. By far the majority of people in the US and most industrial nations are not self-sufficient -- even the farmers, while probably better able to cope, are hardly self-sufficient. That's a lot of people to feed, clothe, and house. To do that requires a lot of coordination. To coordinate on current scales and with current infrastructure, you need something like the telephone (and a lot of other technology too).

      I try my best to live simply and to recognize my luxuries for what they are. But I also don't fool myself, and I know how dependent I am on the wider society. Things that are very simple for me now could become very, very difficult if the systems of this country fell apart.

  • by stinky wizzleteats ( 552063 ) on Saturday February 02, 2002 @12:20PM (#2942257) Homepage Journal

    We hashed all this out for y2k. I disagree that our dependence on technology has made us more vulnerable than in the past.

    I've worked on many large technology implementations. For all the failures of technology, I have yet to see these weaknesses made evident by having implemented the technology correctly. Read - people's stupidity grossly overshadows any fundamental weakness brought about by using technology.

  • by ricst ( 266214 ) on Saturday February 02, 2002 @12:33PM (#2942320) Homepage
    Risk-Assessment Expert Explains
    The Danger of U.S.'s Terror Fight

    By MARC CHAMPION
    Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

    LONDON -- Suppose that, courtesy of a time machine, you happened to be standing on the beach where the first fish struggled on to dry land from the ocean about 200 million years ago, and you clobbered it over the head. Mankind might never have existed.

    "That fish might have been an unprepossessing brute, but think of the extraordinary potential that would have been lost," says Sir Martin Rees, Britain's Astronomer Royal and one of the world's leading authorities on the development of the cosmos, which he calls evolution before Darwin.

    Lately, this kind of question has been occupying Sir Martin's thoughts a lot. In his opinion, the risk that mankind could soon send itself into extinction or regression is rising fast -- no time machine required. The University of Cambridge professor finds that the current focus on the war against international terrorism and on threats posed by the kinds of terrorist groups that carried out the Sept. 11 attacks on America are about the most obvious danger that Western society faces.
    [[go to world economic forum]]

    "What really worries me is that in 10 or 20 years, the kind of thing that can be done by terrorist cells now will be in the power of single, technically proficient weirdos," Sir Martin says in an interview. He explains that this will be the result of the rapid democratization of scientific information through the Internet, combined with advances in microbiology and genetics. He thinks that thousands or even millions of people could soon have access to technologies capable of causing mass epidemics, a proliferation as difficult to eliminate as the illegal drug trade.

    The 59-year old mathematician and astrophysicist is so worried by this prospect that he is working on new a book called "Our Last Century? The 50/50 Chance of Survival." His previous six books and 500 research papers have dealt more with the nature of cosmological phenomena such as black holes.

    Sir Martin will bring his pessimistic take on future risks to the World Economic Forum in New York this week. There, on Friday, he will help lead a workshop -- "Science: A Source of Security or Vulnerability?" -- together with a nuclear physicist and a specialist in artificial intelligence among others. It is Sir Martin's hope that world leaders will take action to reduce the risks he plans to outline.

    Sir Martin admits that dealing daily with a big picture that spans billions of years "does give one a different perspective." But before condemning him to history's long list of disappointed doomsayers, it is worth looking at Sept. 11's events from an astrophysicist's point of view.

    As Sir Martin explains in a recently published book -- "Our Cosmic Habitat" -- about 13 billion years ago there was nothing but hydrogen and energy. Then, at some instant there was the "big bang" from which expanded, in a vast burst of heat and energy, all the stars and planets that eventually would form the cosmos we are familiar with today. About four billion years ago, as the surface of our planet was cooling, the first living monocellular organism appeared. It then took another three billion years to produce the first tiny multicellular organism, the basic building block of complex life. In other words, it seems to have been extremely difficult and wholly unpredictable that life should have begun and developed as it has.

    By comparison, if thousands of people should in 10 or 20 years time have access to the technology needed to build weapons of mass destruction, the odds look high that one or more deranged loners, cultists, mischief makers or terrorists might use it.

    "Risk calculations are changing all the time," Sir Martin says at the rambling 18th-century farmhouse where he lives amid peaceful fields that tumble down to the Cam river. "For example, before Sept. 11, anyone wanting to work out the probability that a jumbo jet would land on top of a nuclear power station would have come to someone like me, who would have figured out how often jumbo jets crash, how big the area is and so on. They would likely have come up with a probability of less than once every million years. The knowledge that someone may do it on purpose has changed all that. You'd have to be an optimist now to come up with a probability of less than once in 100 years."

    For all its unpredictability and horror, Sept. 11 wasn't the cause, but a symptom of what concerns Sir Martin. It was April of last year, when he first tried to find a publisher for "Our Last Century?" -- months before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. He recalls that it was a miserable, gray day; the London Underground was on strike; and foot-and-mouth disease was ravaging livestock across Britain's countryside. He found no publishers interested in the book. "They didn't think anyone would read it, because it was just too depressing," Sir Martin says.

    However, the events of Sept. 11 have changed perceptions. Sir Martin now has a publisher for his book and hopes that even though he can't see a solution to the risk of future calamities, governments can take action in order to minimize them.

    These actions wouldn't include rolling back technological progress, the Internet or globalization. "I think it is inexorable that we will learn more and that the benefits will outweigh the risks," Sir Martin says. But there is still plenty that Western governments, and the U.S. in particular, can do.

    They could get serious, if belatedly, about helping Russia to dismantle its nuclear weapons and protect its stockpile of fissile material, Sir Martin says. They could do more to alleviate extreme inequalities of wealth between and within nations, which he believes contribute to a climate of desperation and resentment that fosters terrorist groups and disaffected loners. Furthermore, they could create and enforce strict regimes to regulate and inspect biological weapons, as well as the use of experimental biotechnology.

    There are other implications to draw from Sir Martin's vision of expanding risk created by the proliferation of technology. For example, U.S. President Bush's administration's focus on nuclear-missile defense makes little sense to Sir Martin. A "dirty" bomb, created by wrapping radioactive material around explosives, is in his view a far more likely threat, because almost anyone could deliver it and do so anonymously.

    Similarly, he believes that Sept. 11 will liberate the West from the dangerous illusion that Western values are universal, and that people around the globe are motivated primarily by economics, rather than religion or other cultural imperatives. "Western society is quite atypical," says Sir Martin. "It is the only society where the most grandiose buildings are economic -- banks and corporate headquarters and the like," Sir Martin says.

    If saving Western civilization from possible harm isn't enough of an imperative to motivate the policy makers who will be attending this year's World Economic Forum, then Sir Martin can offer another reason why governments should put aside narrow interests to address the risks that he believes the world now faces. "What if we are unique?" asks Sir Martin, who describes himself as undecided on the issue of whether we are alone in the cosmos.

    Given how difficult it was for complex life to emerge on Earth, it is quite possible that we are alone and therefore unique to the universe. "In that case we do not have to take our cosmic modesty too far," says Sir Martin. "The future of life on earth and beyond in the universe would depend on what we do in the next century."
  • The general question being "Is society becoming too dependent on technology?", that which gives me faith is actually its imperfection. A bit like the police force, which cannot spin a net so fine that it catches all criminals, thus giving a chance to latter-day Robin Hoods, technology is far from perfect, and used in an even less perfect manner.
    When I watch some of my clients, or specifically, how they use technology, it's sometimes a wonder they get anywhere, let alone depending on it totally. What they do get by on are resourceful individuals, who are always ready to reinvent the wheel on the spur of the moment, and stop any gap that appears. World tech is a kludge already, so there's no way anybody make one - there is no "central point", no cornerstone that will cause a large portion of any infrastructure to crumble if removed ... and that, in this case, is a Good Thing (TM).
    (I realise that I am offering up a purely anecdotal argument, so it's all just IMHO.)
  • The attacks on Sept 11 didn't suprise me in the way the terrorists chose their attack by using airplanes to destroy their targets. Just weeks before the attack I had read the novel Storming Heaven by Dale Brown which had a plot along the lines of the Sept 11 attacks. Having read alot of fiction and Sci-Fi books and having a fairly open mind, its not hard to think of ways of which terrorists could still try to attack us. I think our society is still vunerable in many ways. By attacking important links like the article points out (and doesn't point out for that matter) terrorists can still cause mass disruption if not mass destruction in our society.

    New laws will only help punish those that are caught more seriously, they will not stop or prevent attacks by people who have no sense of the law. And at the same time these new laws seem to be taking away rights of society in the name of helping defend ourselves. So in a sense they have already won by forcing us to change our lives and live in fear of what they might do next.
  • Our problems with dependancies circles around the "monopoly" preference of economists- they have a problem picturing any reason to have more than ONE of anything that isn't "disposable".

    So we end up dependant upon technologies that can bring down all of civilization with just a single-point failure. And this is where economists seem certain the "sweet spot" is for "efficiency" in resource utilization.

    Here a little item where I ramble a bit; It doesn't fit perfectly, but it's not too awful either:
    CyberDiversity [systemtoolbox.com]

    Efficiency may be nice, but survival is nicer.

  • by Animats ( 122034 ) on Saturday February 02, 2002 @12:49PM (#2942395) Homepage
    The entire effect of the French Resistance movement during WWII prior to D-Day was to lower production from the conquered country about 10%. And that was in a conquered country, where the producers hated the occupiers. The Allied command viewed Resistance activities prior to D-Day as a morale effort for the French. The real job of the Resistance was to be ready to attack some key targets just before the invasion.

    The French resistance movement was a large terrorist operation, blowing up trains, sabotaging power stations, destroying bridges, and mining roads. It didn't have much effect on the German war effort because the country was just too big.

    Coordinated terrorist attacks can be effective for a time, but militarily, they're only useful if they can be exploited by conventional military action.

    But we really do need to get those used reactor fuel rods out of the spent fuel pools and into Yucca Mountain.

  • by Chris Y Taylor ( 455585 ) on Saturday February 02, 2002 @01:18PM (#2942515) Homepage
    CSIS did a very good analysis of this back in the 1980s, called Crisis Management in a Society of Networks but I don't think any copies are available now (for obvious reasons).

    Also, because technology allows man to accomplish more (communicate or travel over longer distances, calculate things faster, make more powerful chemical reactions, provide energy to more complex and powerful devices, kill people and creatures more easily and at longer ranges, store food longer before it spoils, etc.) in every area of human endeavor, it gives the common man more power to do both good and evil. I have a little box in my house and another at my office that can perform calculations in mere seconds that took the Manhattan Project scientists weeks and Tycho Brahe years. I can access more power in my home's electrical outlets and my car's engine than a Medieval engineer could imagine getting from the biggest waterwheel or horse powered machine. I can buy chemicals to clean my clothes or to fumigate my house that would make the most sophisticated alchemist CuO with envy.

    As the average person gains the power to do things (good things, AND evil things) that are equal to or exceed that which could only be accomplished in previous times by Kings and Emperors, it is perhaps understandable that we will begin to worry that our neighbors can do a little TOO much (or we may especially worry that our subjects can do too much if we are "leaders")and that we must trust in either their good nature or the deterrence of the law to prevent them from doing us harm. Few people complain, however, that THEY have too much power... only their neighbors.

    One of the key areas where this trend first became visible is in gun control, probably because guns are an obvious symbol of power. A dainty young woman can go to the store and buy a gun that allows her to achieve a level of lethality in only a few weeks of practice that was once only attainable by a few very strong and/or dedicated martial artists after years of work. Perhaps the 1st society to be freaked out by this was feudal Japan, which saw them as a huge threat to the established order (which is probably accurate, it just wouldn't do to have some lowly peasants with rifles or muskets having the power to kill the Emperor's best warriors). But just as firearms give the average man the power to do much greater good (the fact that a large number of peasants CAN defeat a small number of elite units allows, and perhaps requires, modern democracies where those who rule are the ones who can get the support of the greatest number of people rather than maintaining an unpopular rule with the use of a handful of elite knights or samurai warriors) it also allows the average man to do much greater evil than before. Because the potential for abuse with this technology is popularly known, there are a large number of people who seek to ban or restrict the average person's access to it in order to protect themselves from their now powerful neighbors. Of course guns have been around for a lot longer than the idea of a "grass roots" gun ban effort (as opposed to a "top down" effort from a threatened aristocracy), but I suspect that is because people moved around less and were more likely to know and trust their neighbors back then, whereas in today's more mobile and less community based societies people trust their politicians and government employees more than they do their neighbors.

    Of course, as I said at the beginning of the last paragraph guns are an obvious symbol of power, but there are plenty of other technologies now available to the average person that are equal to or exceed (sometimes greatly) the power to do harm that guns have. There is a great deal of uproar about keeping guns away from kids after the Columbine and other school shootings, but a devious and malicious high school student could do a lot more harm with a box of rat poison (or a hundred other technologies) than he could ever hope to be able to do with a pistol. Similarly, the 9/11 attacks demonstrated that the power contained in a score of airplane tickets is equal to or greater than the power in a small weapon of mass destruction. So now people are working to restrict access to airlines. But there are a nearly infinite technical solutions to any problem. The Foreign Policy article (and the earlier CSIS report) is now starting to hint at what may be a crucial challenge to free societies everywhere. As technology advances, it is no longer possible to stop people from being able to accomplish great harm by simply restricting a few "dangerous" technologies. In a society where the average man has access to a wide variety of powerful technologies (many, like modern airline travel, don't even seem dangerous without a great deal of thought), there are nearly an infinite number of ways for evil men to do a great deal of harm... too many ways to be thwarted by simply banning a few technologies. We can rethink the use of and availability of technologies like firearms, and cryptography, and airlines, and high-rise buildings, and microbiology; but the next attack could be based on other technologies, like chemical poisons, or tractor-trailer rigs, or hydroelectric plants, or trains, or.... Well... almost anything.

    How do we prevent men from doing greater evil as society's technology improves? Can we make technology that can only be used for good? Can we restrict access to technology to only "good" or a "approve" people? Who decides who is "good" and "approved", and can we have such a society without destabilizing it's tendency to remain a democracy? Was the unibomber right? Can our judicial system prevent these problems simply through deterrence, and not the banning of "dangerous" technologies? How can you ban one technology without banning all the others it is based on? Would that require making certain knowledge or research "forbidden"? Do the Amish have the ultimate answer? How long before such a society was conquered by its neighbors who did not ban technologies? Are these risks just the price we must pay to live in a free and technologically advanced society? Can we find a regulatory or legal compromise that strikes a balance between giving the average person power over his environment (and his government) while minimizing (but not eliminating) the risks of immature or criminal people abusing technology?

    I don't know, but I do suspect that these questions are no longer going to be limited to a few high-profile technologies with obvious associations to military power like cryptography and firearms. As wrongdoers have become (and are forced to become even more) inventive in their misuse of all sorts of technology, more and more people will realize that this is an issue that cuts across all types of technology. Gun control can perhaps be seen as a preview of the same types of arguments that will soon be had over a wide range of technologies.

    Note: my use of "man" and "men" in this post is meant to refer to people of both genders.
  • by eschasi ( 252157 ) on Saturday February 02, 2002 @01:30PM (#2942557)
    Our high-tech societies (particulary the US and Europe) are based on the assumption that people will not willfully disrupt them. Power lines are in the open, police give traffic tickets assuming that the offender will show up and pay them, and so forth. All of this is based on the assumption that ordinary citizens, criminals, and even foreign adversaries are worthy of a great deal of trust.

    Our technological systems are based on the assumption of trust. When you can no longer assume it, things which were formerly technically or financially feasible become infeasible. The ultimate breakdown of this trust gives us societies which bomb themselves back to the stone age. Various countries in a state of permanent civil war are good examples. Bridges are built (expensive!) on the assumption that neither the good guys nor the bad guys will blow them up because that damage hurts society as a whole more than the benefit to either side. Once that implicit trust fails, neither side bothers rebuilding bridges. The end result is a death spiral into the stone age, or a total victory by one side or the other, or a recognition that both sides must act with trust.

    Now we face enemies which cannot be trusted. Some of them feel that this is the right way to fight, others think a stone-age end result is what should happen. As a result, the old trust-based systems will have to be changed.

    This risk to systems is going to change both our systems and our society. What change will depend on the difficulty of protection, the value of the system, and the cost if it fails. Some systems can simply be made more robust (cf Israels policies on El Al flights). Some will be made more resilient in the face of intermittent failure (cf the way so many companies no longer trust that electric companies will provide uninterrupted power). Some will be abandoned as simply infeasible.

    Pulling and pushing those decisions will be the societal urge to enforce trust (which, ultimately, isn't trust at all) via strong identity and continual authorization and monitoring.

    No matter where it goes, it's going to be a different world.

    -- eschasi, who's been mulling this over for far too many years

    • "Trust" is what makes ANY civilization possible. It is the single required currency all exchange on a daily basis. Laws work only insofar as we trust others to follow them-

      David Brin's book "The Postman" explored this trait far more than the Kevin Kostner movie. Trust that others adhere to the same rules is key to living with other people.

      In our technological society, you not only trust the people driving their cars to not hit you, but you're also trusting your mechanics (and their mechanics) to have fixed the brakes RIGHT. If you lose such trust, there's nothing short of hunter-gatherer to fall back on- since an agrarian society depends upon trust in other to not take what they make.

    • Good points. What's interesting is, more and more we are working to find feasable ways around that trust in the way we design things.

      Schools are designed with less windows, even at the expense of student evnerionment, because it's assumed vandalism will take place.

      Traffic lights and mass transit systems are being designed because it's assumed people will try to destroy them.

      Computer networks are designed with security in mind now because it's assumed people will try to hack into them.

      It's almost as if with every new endevour we take on, we enter into them with a little less trust.

      On the other end of the spectrum, laws are being created because of an assumption that people are not to be trusted.

      So the mantra seems to be 'design everything with the assumption people will try to destroy it, while at the same time limit the chance anyone has to destroy it in the first place'.
  • This is so *lame* and so *old*. What makes the issue farsical is its discussion in this forum. One word redundancy ! The net was born to withstand the sorts of attacks being discussed and redundancy in all systems is the only sure way to deal with the threat. Unfortunately the technology, e.g. solar energy derived from roofing materials is a long way off, and until the technology exists any discussions are moot or no more than the wailing and gnashing of teeth in the technological wasteland.
  • by h_jurvanen ( 161929 ) on Saturday February 02, 2002 @01:57PM (#2942666)
    The RISKS forum [ncl.ac.uk] already documents everyday, practical examples of technical failures and their consequences. Take a look.
  • by Nindalf ( 526257 ) on Saturday February 02, 2002 @02:27PM (#2942781)
    In selecting customs, for a given level of sophistication, there is an unavoidable tradeoff between efficiency and robustness. In other words, choice must be made between aiming for the maximum profit in the probable case, or the maximum probability of sufficient profit. The longer a civilization enjoys prosperity, the more it will tend to slip towards a preference for efficiency. Considered in isolation or over the short term, each step along this path seems wise: after all, a failure this year is unlikely, and a failure in any one system can be compensated for with others.

    Then, some unaccounted trend changes the rules, it turns out that the probabilities were incorrectly estimated, and the civilization collapses.

    To become more efficient, all the businesses are sacrificing their reserves. For example, the switch from warehousing to Just In Time manufacturing and delivery. This saves money by letting them buy materials later, use less storage space, and forcing them to have a smoother, more predictable supply chain (when you have no reserve of parts, and the needed shipment of parts doesn't arrive or is defective, someone gets fired; JIT makes it much harder to hide mistakes from upper management).

    It also means that disruption of any element disrupts the entire system. Production halts. Distribution halts. Productivity drops to zero until everything gets back to normal.

    Or look at computers, and the increasing emphasis on network resources. Why keep a dictionary by your desk when it's quicker to look it up in dictionary.com? Why have software that can be run on an unconnected computer if you can reduce piracy and keep it up to date better by having it served fresh on the network? Why not just let all work grind to a halt when the network goes down if you've got 99% uptime?

    I don't even want to think about the delicate lace of high finance, much less talk about it. The fact that the typical private person is now deeply in debt rather than having savings is sufficiently illustrative of our modern philosophy of finance and the relative esteem in which we hold efficiency and robustness.

    To make matters worse, we have these cultural contradictions: we have one set of rules for disasters, and rely on a contradictory set of rules for business as usual, including preparing for disasters.

    During a disaster our capitalist system suddenly switches to, "to each according to his need, from each according to his ability." There is plenty of compensation for loss, but no reward for preserving oneself and not being a drain on others. Those who hold reserves in disasters are greedy hoarders, those who sell them at the market value reflecting the shortage condition are filthy gougers.

    In short, there is no profit incentive to hold a reserve for times of disaster, as it will be taken from you and you will be compensated at non-disaster rates at best. Even spending extra money to reduce your vulnerability means that you won't get your cut of emergency measures compensation. Instead of letting preparation pay its fair dividends, we rely on government to force unaffected regions to bail out affected ones... which works until the affected region is too large for unaffected ones to compensate for.

    In short, it is not our technology, but our culture which makes us vulnerable. The technology supports a full range between optimal efficiency and optimal robustness, and we choose to discourage safeguards by our pattern of investments, choice of products and vendors, and reaction to crisis.
  • by namespan ( 225296 ) <namespan.elitemail@org> on Saturday February 02, 2002 @02:49PM (#2942852) Journal
    One of my biggest pet peeves with reactions to 9/11 has been the large set of technological security solutions. Very little mention is made of efforts to step up human intelligence/security -- from the level of "who's going to analyze the intelligence gathered by the CIA?" to "How do we make sure the human process at the airport is intelligence?"

    We have a serious illusion in the US that technology is going to solve everything. Especially those of us who don't actually work with technology. Write your senators and encourage them to work towards more human intelligence ('course, do we REALLY want Congress working that out?).
    • One of my biggest pet peeves with reactions to 9/11 has been the large set of technological security solutions. Very little mention is made of efforts to step up human intelligence/security -- from the level of "who's going to analyze the intelligence gathered by the CIA?" to "How do we make sure the human process at the airport is intelligence?"

      Effectivly a big fuss has been made about technical "solutions". When lack of human intelligence (e.g. people who understood Arabic and local languages from parts of Afganistan) indeed an over reliance on technical methods was actually part of the problem. Throwing more technology is more likely to be a case of making a bad situation worst than doing anything to improve it.
      The best "tool" to catch devious humans is another human.
  • It seems that we generally "agree" NOT to exploit the weaknesses of our infrastructure (considering how vulnerable it has ALWAYS been).

    On one hand, the terrorists really were not all that creative in their attacks in Sept.- hijacking has been part of terrorism 101... the only twist was deliberately crashing them.

    It is one thing to be prepared, another to be paranoid. We all need to trust our neighbors to a certain degree. Any suicidal person could crash head-on into you driving down any road and there is nothing you can do about it... it could happen, and yet we drive by countless cars daily without a problem. All the gloom-and-doom of "Y2K" yielded very little problems- and the billions of dollars spent on the issue may or may not have been spent judiciously.
    • On one hand, the terrorists really were not all that creative in their attacks in Sept.- hijacking has been part of terrorism 101... the only twist was deliberately crashing them.

      Which isn't an original idea. The Japanese crashed planes into US ships in World War 2. Writers have described fictional uses of everything from cars to starships as improvised missiles. Definitly including hijacked airliners e.g. at the end of The Running Man. (Published in paperback in 1988, so probably written sometime before 1985.)
  • All it takes is a terrorist w/ an e-bomb to destroy C3I resources that aren't TEMPEST protected, which is pretty much everything with wires. And the armed forces are using lots of unhardened common, off-the-shelf (COTS) equipment that is vulernable as well, but supposedly they have paper/pencil backups and hardened critical systems.
    • You mean a "pinch"? (Score:3, Interesting)

      by ScottBob ( 244972 )
      In the recent movie Ocean's Eleven, an electromagnetic pulse weapon called a "pinch" was used to knock out the lights of Las Vegas so they could rob the casino. I remembered reading about electromagnetic pulse weapons in either Popular Mechanics or Popular Science (I forget which) about a month or two prior to 9/11 The article said that the current state of these weapons could produce a pulse much stronger than that of an atomic bomb, that it would fry the electronics of anything within a 30 mile range, even if they were shielded inside a grounded Faraday cage, and would even cause house wiring to melt down. And the scary part is that they are easy to make in the cost range of not thousands, but hundreds. Imagine if a dozen or so of these were detonated inside a big city. All activities that are dependent on electricity or the use of electronic devices would halt, even today's cars with their computer controlled ignition. It would be like going back to the early 1800s.
  • Our fevered, Hollywood-conditioned imaginations

    Man, did Thomas Homer-Dixon ever say a mouthful there!

  • by nomadic ( 141991 )
    What about a third reason, that governments have a much easier time of restricting the rights of their citizens.
  • Joy called this almost two years ago. Read the essay, Why the Future Doesn't Need Us."
  • He wrote the essay almost two years ago. (First post didn't get the link right, although it looked OK in the preview.)
  • Read the essay Why the Future Doesn't Need Us [wired.com]. It made a big splash a couple of years ago, and was ahead of its time.
  • "Certainly it seems now that nothing could have been more obvious to the people of the earlier twentieth century than the rapidity with which war was becoming impossible. And as certainly they did not see it. They did not see it until the atomic bombs burst in their fumbling hands. Yet the broad facts must have glared upon any intelligent mind. All through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the amount of energy that men were able to command was continually increasing. Applied to warfare that meant that the power to inflict a blow, the power to destroy, was continually increasing. There was no increase whatever in the ability to escape. Every sort of passive defence, armour, fortifications, and so forth, was being outmastered by this tremendous increase on the destructive side. Destruction was becoming so facile that any little body of malcontents could use it; it was revolutionising the problems of police and internal rule. Before the last war began it was a matter of common knowledge that a man could carry about in a handbag an amount of latent energy sufficient to wreck half a city. These facts were before the minds of everybody; the children in the streets knew them. And yet the world still, as the Americans used to phrase it, 'fooled around' with the paraphernalia and pretensions of war."

    --H. G. Wells, The World Set Free (1913). This was the book that described atomic bombs that worked by speeding up the natural radioactive decay process. In Wells' book, the atomic bombs did not deliver much more explosive power (in the sense of energy per unit time) than traditional explosives, but they "continued to explode" (released energy at that rate) for days and days and days.

    It was, specifically, this book that got Leo Szilard to thinking about how the the process of radioactive decay could be sped up, leading to the idea of a nuclear chain reaction...

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