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Risk vs. Reward in the Digital World

By: Gary Metcalf | 14 Aug | 0 comments

 

Photo: Harland Quarrington/MOD [see page for license], via Wikimedia Commons

It was no surprise that the Sunday morning new shows on August 11th featured more information about online privacy and security concerns. While the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs have been in place for years, with full knowledge of the U. S. Congress, the information released by Edward Snowden raised public awareness dramatically. Questions about privacy, security, and vulnerability remain a long way from being resolved. On Face the Nation, Gen. Michael Hayden, former CIA and NSA director unsurprisingly defended the programs. He described actions by the House of Representatives to curtail the programs as "People acting out of emotion with a false sense of urgency and with a great deal of misinformation." Responding to some critics in Congress who've said briefings on the NSA programs have been inadequate, Hayden argued, "This is just a complicated subject, alright?"

That’s an interesting way to describe the complexities. What the Internet, and digital communications more broadly, provide in convenience, have trade-offs in risk. Pushing a button on Amazon.com, having the charge go directly to my credit card, and a book show up on my e-reader, or a full-length movie download to my computer, in minutes, still amazes me.  Having money transfer around the world via PayPal is equally incredible. Those pale in comparison, of course, to the sharing of work by employees on different continents, and even more so to the control and communication of the rover on Mars by NASA scientists.

Technology is not inherently good or bad. How it is used can be either. As Representative Dutch Ruppersberger put it, "We in politics have to deal with perception, not just reality.”

With almost as many cell phone subscriptions as people on the planet now (see “Measuring the Information Society”) we certainly seem to have adopted digital technology as a species. It is integral to most daily lives on the planet. Very few of understand the details, though. We try new devices, learn to use them, get more familiar, and soon begin to count on them. What is equally interesting is the public narrative which evolves about new technologies. We use them, we count on them, and then we address our anxieties by catastrophizing about them. We create books and movies playing out our fears, as if we can inoculate ourselves from the problems by rehearsing them in advance.

I am halfway through reading “CyberStorm,” a new novel by Matthew Mather, a writer who also describes himself as “a leading member of the world's cybersecurity community.” The plot focuses on New York City, after a cyber-attack has crippled the infrastructure of the U.S. (power, water, transportation, banking, food sources, etc.) Mather is certainly not the first to explore the idea. In an article for U.S. News and World Report, reporter John T. Bennet said, “U.S. officials from two presidential administrations for nearly a decade have warned about cyberstrikes that could cripple U.S. financial or national security networks, or even take down the American electrical grid. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has warned of a cyber-Pearl Harbor, and senior intelligence officials say cyberthreats fall just behind terrorism and weapons of mass destruction on the intel community's list of top U.S. threats."

There are risks inherent in change, and what many people consider to be progress. There are also risks in trying to stop change, which appears to be ongoing in our universe. That really only leaves questions about the direction of change – and the degree to which we can affect it. Going back to the Sunday news programs, there was an updated report about invasive biological species in the U.S. such as Asian carp in the river systems, insects affecting crops, pythons in Florida, kudzu vines covering 8 million acres of land in southern states. Some of these had been introduced intentionally, often as ways to combat other unwanted species. Many came from the same source as the cyber-threats; the tremendous interconnectedness of our world today.

Considering these issues from a systems perspective, we are once again challenged with questions about boundaries and connections. Viruses in the natural world infect organisms, sometimes creating great problems if there is not enough immunity to repel them. We do not understand this as malicious behavior, though. Viruses simply exist, and behave as they do. Computer viruses, however, are assumed to be created by humans with destructive intent. They are meant to do harm. In both cases, there is a lack of balance. There is no harmony between system and environment. The typical problem with an invasive species is that it has “no natural enemies” in the new environment, which allows it to act for a time as a predator with no limits. There are abundant resources and nothing to limit growth and reproduction.

Eventually, of course, in the natural world, some limit will be reached. The new species will deplete its resources, or a new predator will arise, or a parasite will kill its host. In human-created, digital worlds, similar rules also apply. Financial accounts get depleted, computer networks cease to function, and destruction eventually reaches maximum entropy.

A difference in our human worlds is our potential for learning and anticipation. We can see how things tend to go – as they have gone through millennia of human history in the past. Destruction brings retaliation, creating more destruction. Predator eventually becomes prey. The nature of threats change, but the underlying behaviors do not. Patterns repeat. Maybe something about this is inevitable. That is one way of telling the story. Destruction is a necessary part of renewal, in order to move forward. Inherent in that is conflict, and competition between species. As we become further intertwined, though, it also raises more questions about boundaries. At what point can we no longer distinguish “them” as “other”?

For many people, there may also be an inherent lack of reality about the cyber world. In games, resources never run out, characters have unlimited lives, and you can always reboot. Even for computer systems, there are backup copies and options to restore. Worst case, you just buy a new machine. In nature, things don’t come back. So far, though, it keeps creating new possibilities.

As our virtual and natural worlds become more connected we will have to reconcile the differences. There will have to be a balance. In the Cold War era that came through the concept of “mutually assured destruction.” If one nation launched a nuclear attack, retaliatory attacks were pretty certain to finish off the rest of the world. We have yet to reach that point with respect to cyber warfare. We still seem to live with the illusion that one side can win.

There is, of course, the possibility that humans could begin to move towards greater potential rather than operating out of fear, and in response to greed. That will mean that we ALL have to quit acting like invasive species, and as if this is a game that can be replayed.

Read other posts by Gary Metcalf

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