Many people these days openly express regret about the digital age. I find their complaints vacuous:
- They say we are losing the art of human contact, but most of us have never been more in touch with actual humans
- They say we are losing sight of the highest pursuits, yet the digital age has brought more art, poetry, painting and faith to more people than any technology in history
- They say that quality of literature is falling, but the opposite seems true to me, as more of the classics are being distributed than previously imaginable.
But there is one aspect of the digital age that is seriously off-track. The government has been using computers to ramp up a new form of warfare that finds its closest analogy in the Cold War and its threat of nuclear holocaust.
A series of reports appearing The Washington Post (source) and The New York Times (source) have documented as fact what many seemingly paranoid people have suspected for a long time. Namely, the government is manufacturing computer viruses to use against computer networks in other countries as a means of disturbing communications, foiling development and spying.
For example, the U.S. and Israel worked together to create “Stuxnet,” a worm designed to disrupt Iran’s nuclear enrichment plant. Parts of the worm leaked more broadly and posed a threat to other networks besides those that were targeted. The thing was created under the Bush administration, but true to form, the Obama administration continued the program.
In a digital age, this really is playing with fire (one of the government-created viruses is actually called Flame). As The New York Times said, “It appears to be the first time the United States has repeatedly used cyberweapons to cripple another country’s infrastructure, achieving, with computer code, what until then could be accomplished only by bombing a country or sending in agents to plant explosives.”
Also true to form, the thing didn’t actually work. Experts report that Iran quickly discovered the worm and dismantled it.
The accounts of its creation and deployment read much like the legendary story of the Manhattan Project, with all the focus on lethal targeting of the enemy but with little thought put to the eventual implications of using tax dollars to create weapons of mass destruction. Not only was the program unnecessary, but also it unleashed a half-century of hell in the form of the arms race and mutually assured destruction.
Commentators so far have worried, with very good reason, about what this sort of thing invites from other hackers, programmers and rogue nations. It takes only one geek with an agenda to do incredible damage. And I suspect that there are many such geeks around the world who could outwit even the best programmers that Israel and the United States could ever assemble. We can’t win at this game. Even The Washington Post pointed out that we live in a glass house and ought to be careful about throwing stones.
But there really is a larger point — not having to do with nationalism, but with the general well-being of the world community. Creating viruses is a nasty thing to do. It is a form of terrorism, a form of violence against the modern world. In the hacker community, people who do this are scum of the earth and enemies of progress. They are rightly shunned like other criminals in the physical world.
Just on grounds of morality and decency, no civilized government should be involved in creating malware, worms or viruses of any sort. The excuse doesn’t matter. Like nuclear technology, once something like this is created, it can’t be put back in the box. We look back to the days of the Manhattan Project and wonder what the heck they were thinking. Future generations will wonder the same about our government too.
The revelations pouring forth about how our own government has become a cyberterrorist have not given rise to much comment at all, and even less alarm. The stories are easily passed over. I suspect that this is because people do not understand or appreciate the moral and practical significance. The reality that the entire world economy is completely dependent on computer networks has still not penetrated the popular mind.
I know this for sure, given the sheer number of emails I see in which people take a firm stand against using their credit cards online. How do they think credit cards are processed these days? How do they think anything happens in the world economy today? In the last 10 years, the percent of telecommunicated information carried by the Internet has moved from 50% to 99%. A third of the world’s population depends on computer networks today, and the remaining two-thirds are in some way dependent on the spillover advantages.
Generally, government involvement in any aspect of modern computing is a bad idea. One of the earliest post-web attempts to improve our computer experience came when Congress legislated against spam in 2003. Just as private spam filters had hit the mainstream and viruses were being controlled by free and paid solutions, Congress jumped in to make the stuff illegal, as if that would actually stop anyone.
Within about a year, Gmail was being offered for free, and the email system had amazing anti-spam filters that others quickly copied. It was the private sector that fixed the problem, not government. Government was just trying to take credit, but its iron-handed approach actually ended up making life more difficult for commercial services seeking to get information to customers that actually needed it.
Consistent with the way government works these days, when it became clear that public policy couldn’t outpace the market in creating good things, it turned to creating evil things. It passed from trying to stop the spreading of viruses to actually spreading viruses itself. This is just a ghastly thing to do with tax dollars, one that threatens to remove the stigma associated with cyberterrorism.
In the name of stopping violence, government is perpetrating it by example, even leading the way by attempting to claim that this is all to the good. As I read the last sentence, I realize that this is a pretty good summary of the upshot of all public policy in these times.
There’s never been a better time for good computer security. The biggest threat we face might in fact be from our own government.