Is Digital Civilization Sustainable?

Here’s something else that the Sony hacking story has me thinking about: the ‘arms race’ between hackers and cybersecurity.

There have been a lot of high-profile cyberattacks lately, and if anything, they seem to be getting more frequent, and more damaging. What’s worse, more and more of every aspect of our lives, and of every commercial and political and military enterprise, is represented and acted upon in the form of electronic information.

Where I work, our electronic infrastructure is more and more ‘locked down’ every day. I’m one of the engineers who have to respond whenever there’s a problem with our software at any of our facilities around the world, but the security barriers have become so numerous and so stifling that I typically spend many, many hours just gaining temporary access to the part of the system I need to examine. Generally I spent vastly more time doing this than diagnosing and fixing the actual problem. The problem, moreover, is not limited to the details of our own security arrangements; we also must comply with a bewildering assortment of external regulations and certifications. Tasks that used to take me minutes or hours now take days.

Despite all of this, breaches of corporate and governmental systems are more and more common, even as the armor-plating grows ever more confining, cumbersome and costly. Given that we’ve put all of our eggs into this basket, there must be an underlying assumption that security can stay ahead of the threat.

But what if, in the long run, it can’t? What if the armamentarium of the hackers can become so formidable that it will always prevail? What if it simply turns out to be the case, in principle, that it is always going to be easier to break in than to keep intruders out? Considering the extent to which all of society now rests on digital technology and the Internet, this would be a titanic collapse; it would be on the order of the fall of Rome.

I have no doubt that this must be the subject of much academic and technical debate, but I’ll confess that I haven’t looked into it, and so I’m not aware of which way the wind is blowing. But just going by what I read in the news, and how things have changed over the past eight years at the medium-sized global corporation I work for, I think a collapse of this sort is hardly out of the question.

Any thoughts, readers?

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31 Comments

  1. JK says

    http://maverickphilosopher.typepad.com/maverick_philosopher/2014/12/whats-wrong-with-this-picture.html

    http://www.history.com/news/a-perfect-solar-superstorm-the-1859-carrington-event

    Posted December 19, 2014 at 10:37 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Both good points. The EMP vulnerability is another serious worry. And you needn’t get me started on cultural rot.

    Posted December 19, 2014 at 10:58 pm | Permalink
  3. Entirely possible. This has troubled me especially since the Snowden leaks.

    If the security costs become too high, the profits will disappear. This is becoming an especially acute issue in my industry, digital advertising.

    It’s not just the high profile attacks, but the everyday fraud activity that most harms businesses both large and small. It has and will lead to economic activity dropping off the internet and back into more antiquated forms of media.

    Posted December 20, 2014 at 12:15 am | Permalink
  4. On a side issue, this Sony ‘imbroglio’ might teach ‘executives’, particularly the higher-ups, to have a care what what dash off unthinkingly on their e-mails. Quite apart from anything else, when published they demonstrate the writer’s inability to run a piss up in a brewery!

    Posted December 20, 2014 at 3:46 am | Permalink
  5. Harold says

    “I typically spend many, many hours just gaining temporary access to the part of the system I need to examine.”

    But what happens if the only person able to grant access to a certain part of the system is on vacation? This is based on a true story.

    Posted December 20, 2014 at 7:01 am | Permalink
  6. Re: “What’s wrong with this picture?”

    The girls are studiously ignoring the boys. The boys are oblivious of the girls. No one is admiring Rembrandt’s masterpiece, “The Night Watch”.

    Sigh …

    Posted December 20, 2014 at 12:49 pm | Permalink
  7. “…, I think a collapse of this sort is hardly out of the question.”

    Fear not, mon ami, les enfants de la gauche will preempt that grim scenario. They’ll destroy us first.

    Posted December 20, 2014 at 4:13 pm | Permalink
  8. But in the event the Left doesn’t preempt the “fall of Rome” scenario, I think something else will intercede.

    Even as we contemplate a “titanic collapse” of our digital infrastructure, there are intense efforts being made to tilt the playing field against the hackery huns.

    When defensive security can no longer resist the offensive threat, the security forces will switch to offense. That’s when the real cyber pyrotechnics will begin. It will become existential warfare, wherein big money talks — nobody walks. No effort (and no funding) spared; no holds barred. The huns will bleed. Out.

    Did I mention “no holds barred”? We’re talking really big bucks here. You think big Bill Gates, et al., not to mention the nuke powers (yes, especially that one), are going to let third world jerkoffs mess with their livelihood?

    Posted December 20, 2014 at 8:07 pm | Permalink
  9. BTW, destruction/offense is always easier to mount than creativity/defense. Offensive action is not overly burdened with minimizing collateral damage (the only exceptions that I am aware of are the rules of engagement for the IDF).

    In our expanding universe (whose expansion rate is increasing) the cosmic struggle between the actions of entropy and gravity will ultimately be won by disorganizing entropy.

    Posted December 20, 2014 at 10:46 pm | Permalink
  10. Malcolm says

    Good comments, TBH. (Also, welcome, Henry D.; I don’t think we’ve seen you here before.) I wonder, though, if the asymmetries of the hacker wars don’t intrinsically favor the hackers.

    As I’ve noted here and elsewhere, one can make the case that good and evil map very nicely onto order vs. entropy. (And that, in turn, is why radical egalitarianism, which seeks to wash and level away all of the world’s potential gradients and disequilibria, is evil: it is a movement toward the “heat death” of civilization.)

    Meanwhile, here’s the latest skirmish.

    Posted December 21, 2014 at 12:15 am | Permalink
  11. “I wonder, though, if the asymmetries of the hacker wars don’t intrinsically favor the hackers.”

    Perhaps the asymmetries do favor the hackers intrinsically, Malcolm. But my point is that when push comes to shove, big-buck resources will overwhelm the opponents, as they did in the American Civil War, as well as in World War II, both of which were existential no-holds-barred conflicts.

    Before the civilized world, which is thoroughly committed to the internet way of life, will allow some pipsqueak to bring its functioning to a halt, it will stop at nothing, not even weapons of mass destruction, to prevent that from happening.

    I am aware that N. Korea has nuclear weapons, and that it is run by maniacal infantiles. Nevertheless, when we switch to offensive action to preserve our way of life, they are dead meat.

    Posted December 21, 2014 at 1:10 am | Permalink
  12. libertybelle says

    “Before the civilized world, which is thoroughly committed to the internet way of life”

    TBH, That would require the civilized world to recognize the threat, through the blinding smokescreen of political correctness and general cultural incognizance, in time to mount an offensive.

    Posted December 21, 2014 at 2:07 am | Permalink
  13. Yes, there is that, Libby, at least in many parts of the civilized world à gauche. But not everywhere.

    There is a nation in the civilized world that knows a thing or two about existential warfare. And they are not about to go down in flames without bringing down a select few first. Bet on it.

    Posted December 21, 2014 at 11:00 am | Permalink
  14. Malcolm says

    Henry, I’m not so sure the civilized world will ‘stop at nothing’; these days it seems to stop at just about everything.

    Also, the problem has two prongs: on the one, there are groups like Anonymous, which by being so diffuse and decentralized is hard even for an enraged behemoth to kill, and on the other is the fact that the main antagonist increasingly appears to be China, which is no ‘pipsqueak’. If cyberwar becomes war with China and assorted others, with all that would entail, then that’s a pretty heavy blow to civilized order too.

    Posted December 21, 2014 at 2:07 pm | Permalink
  15. Well, if China chooses to engage in existential warfare with the rest of the civilized world (yes, I do envision China, as well as Russia, but not N. Korea, Iran, and other detritus, as part of the civilized world), then we are talking about a different form of Armageddon. The latter form is similar to the one we faced, and survived, during the half-century cold war.

    But I don’t envision China, currently the largest economy in the world, choosing to do that any time soon.

    Posted December 21, 2014 at 2:23 pm | Permalink
  16. JK says

    (Bear in mind Tehran hosts a rare Norkie embassy.)

    http://www.cylance.com/assets/Cleaver/Cylance_Operation_Cleaver_Report.pdf

    Posted December 21, 2014 at 6:21 pm | Permalink
  17. JK,

    I have already relegated Iran, whose capital is Teheran, and the Norkies to the detritus of the world’s entities.

    If you are implying that the world’s detritus would be as difficult to deal with, as it would be with a world power like China, I don’t see it that way.

    I still recall how the world quivered before the mighty Father of the Mother of all Battles. We all know what happened to that asshole, and his asshole sons. As Dennis Miller recounted the sons’ demise:

    Gunfire erupts throughout the sons’ compound, and Qusay yells for his brother’s attention: “Uday! Uday!”

    And Dennis Miller responds, “Them’s the Marines, motherf*cker.”

    Posted December 21, 2014 at 7:11 pm | Permalink
  18. JK says

    No Henry, just I’m not sure whether I believe the DoJ (particularly this one given … oh for instance

    “If you like your doctor … It would be illegal for me to do that … et f*cking cetera.”)

    Anyway, not sure I’d place all my eggs in the ‘Norkies used the Chinese hacker-basket’ … … “we’re” negotiating nuclear stuff just now .. don’t know if, oh for instance a Susan Rice mighta suggested in a diversionary manner. History ‘n all.

    Posted December 21, 2014 at 9:07 pm | Permalink
  19. JK,

    I have a strong suspicion that we are not only on different wave lengths, but also on waves that are orthogonal. But i’m cool with it, bro.

    As the cool people used to say, back in the day, “Different strokes for different folks.”

    BTW, what was that brand of single malt Scotch you where touting the other day?

    Y’all be cool, y’hear?

    Posted December 22, 2014 at 12:23 am | Permalink
  20. JK says

    Glenfiddich. 40 year old if you can find it.

    10’s alright in a pinch though.

    Oh. And neat. Always.

    Posted December 22, 2014 at 2:28 am | Permalink
  21. Whitewall says

    JK, and here I figured you to be a wine man?

    Posted December 22, 2014 at 10:39 am | Permalink
  22. I’ve always been a neat guy.

    Posted December 22, 2014 at 1:03 pm | Permalink
  23. JK says

    Whitewall, any *appreciable* time spent over on D&N should’ve disabused you of that notion long ago.

    Of that Henry, I was confident.

    Posted December 22, 2014 at 2:30 pm | Permalink
  24. JK,
    Back atcha, my friend;

    Whitewall,
    Actually, I’m the wino (but NOT merlot) in this salon.

    Posted December 22, 2014 at 2:36 pm | Permalink
  25. Whitewall says

    JK…but that link you gave me about wine?!

    Big Henry…no merlot- you are a gentleman of refinement.

    Posted December 22, 2014 at 2:52 pm | Permalink
  26. JK says

    Oh yeah Whitewall, I forgot Chickenopolis. I can understand the confusion.

    But the crux is, Thar’s Democrats aplenty, more’n you can swing a stick without clomping, in thet some counties apprisin’ the Ozarks!

    (You notice I come by here alot even though OEM does some too? Cain’t take “association” too very far.)

    Posted December 22, 2014 at 3:50 pm | Permalink
  27. “… a gentleman of refinement.”

    Thanx, WW. Some would have me as “a gentleman of confinement”.

    Posted December 22, 2014 at 5:28 pm | Permalink
  28. “Nevertheless, when we switch to offensive action to preserve our way of life, they are dead meat.”

    Money talks, nobody walks. (You can quote me.)

    North Korean Internet, 3G Mobile Network Shut Down For Hours

    Posted December 30, 2014 at 1:16 pm | Permalink
  29. JK says

    See above @ December 21, 2014 at 9:07 pm.

    I “think we’d all agree” that was a pretty quick attribution.

    Posted December 30, 2014 at 3:36 pm | Permalink
  30. JK says

    http://www.computerworld.com/article/2861531/cyberwarfare-digital-weapons-causing-physical-damage.html

    Posted December 30, 2014 at 5:20 pm | Permalink
  31. JK,

    I’m sure you are implying something. I’m just not getting it.

    Once again, the point I have tried to make is that defending against hacker attacks is harder (much harder) than mounting retaliatory counter attacks. And the guys with the really big guns (think Stuxnet) have not been idle in the past four years.

    It wouldn’t surprise me if Dennis Rodman is a CIA operative who has been embedded with high-tec chips to not only bring down the norkies’ infrastructure (if they have any), but also to create all kinds of chaos within the upper echelons of Kim “Tiny” Jong’s magic kingdom.

    Far fetched? Maybe. Does anyone know for sure (anyone besides people with the proper authorization)? Doubtful. Of course, that’s really the point, isn’t it.

    Posted December 30, 2014 at 8:35 pm | Permalink