Cyber-threats and Government
May 18, 2017
On The Digital Life this week we look at cybersecurity in the wake of the WannaCry ransomeware attack that affected hundreds of thousands of computers in 150 countries on Friday and over the weekend. WannaCry is malicious software that’s transmitted via e-mail. It encrypts files, locking users out of their computers and threatening to destroy their data if they don’t pay a ransom to the hackers. Last weekend, the malware spread across Europe and Asia, attacking hospital systems, universities, and companies. NHS, the National Health Service of Britain was particularly affected by the attack, causing emergency rooms to turn away patients, and medical appointments and surgery to be rescheduled. The malware behind WannaCry was stolen from the NSA, which raises the question, what is the role and responsibility of government when it comes to cybersecurity?
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Over the weekend this ransomware attack spread throughout Europe and also into Asia, and I think it was particularly interesting because it spread across multiple continents, seemingly rapidly compared to some of these attacks that we’ve seen in the past. So, for me, this really puts a point on the fact that our physical worlds and our cyber worlds are inexorably intertwined in many important ways now, many sort of frightening interdependencies.
One of those is represented by the fact that we have electronic health records and of course in Britain their hospital systems were affected by this ransomware attack and folks had to have surgeries rescheduled, medical appointments, etc., were unable to be completed because they didn’t have access to the electronic health records.
So, just on it’s face, Dirk, what are your impressions of this latest cybersecurity problem represented by the WannaCry ransomware?
So, it’s interesting, kind of caught with our pants down, similar to Russia being caught with their pants down in terms of their undermining the United States election in 2016. So, it’s one of those things, you know it’s out there, you take for granted it’s out there, but once it’s exposed, it’s kind of embarrassing. It makes you wonder and question what the hell it is we’re all doing.
Now, not all of those rules and conventions are necessarily applied all the time, and there’s certainly plenty of examples of what we’ll sort of broadly call terrorism where civilian targets are very specifically gone after, but generally speaking, when we consider general warfare, we think of soldiers. We think of tanks, planes. We think of large-scale assaults, perhaps, or maybe Green Berets or what have you.
But conventional warfare has its rule sets, which are completely upended when you’re talking about cyber, for a couple of different reasons. One is that the whole point with cyber war is that you can disrupt an enemy’s general operations, whether it be something to do with their power, or their information technology, or their communications, or what have you.
Additionally, it’s disproportionately … sort of has tremendous leverage, right? So, a small actor can have an outsizes effect on his or her enemy, and then thirdly, the way in which these attacks propagate is unpredictable. So, there are certain types of weapons that have unpredictable outcomes, but for the most part, we know when you drop a bomb somewhere it’s gonna explode and just affect that area.
With a cyber attack of this type you just don’t know what the end game is going to be. You don’t know what’s going to happen with this ransomware. It could be affecting a hospital system in the U.K. and then all of the sudden there is a telecom in Spain that’s having problems, or a university somewhere else. It’s much more — at least for the time being — harder to control, I think.
So, some of that is just the nature of cyber itself, the way these things spread, and then some of that — as I mentioned earlier — we don’t … the rules and norms of this type of warfare have not yet been established.
It happened in isolated cases in history, but since World War 2, largely because of technology, frankly, the limits have kind of been ripped off. Sure, we have Geneva Convention, we have different rules, but if you look in different cultures, from the former Yugoslavia, the horrible genocide that was going on there 25 years ago, things that are happening in the Middle East now, in Africa, in a number of places, those rules are totally thrown out the window.
Genocide is being perpetrated, mass rapes and horrible treatment of the civilian population, so you know, I think rules and norms of warfare have always been a little on the mythical side. It’s all well and good as long as we both think we have a chance to win. Then once one side thinks they’re going down, kind of everything is out the window. But, you know, it’s a modern reality over the last — what’s the timeframe now — so, World War 2, 75 years.
Total war is kind of the way things go. Civilian populations are getting sucked in, technology is a big, big part of that, and this is a new flavor of technology, a new flavor of war. I mean, thank goodness that the consequence, so far, isn’t a whole generation of lads sent off to a trench to be destroyed physically or mentally. The cost of cyber war, specifically on all of us as individuals pales in comparison to the sacrifices of life and sanity that were made in more conventional war.
So, the problem is war. Let’s freakin’ move past it people. Humanity has evolved to a point where war is ridiculous. We should be able to move beyond nationalism, we should be able to move … we have plenty, we have abundance, yet we still have people starving. If we figure these things out from a social perspective, war isn’t necessary. War being necessary is a remnant of our barbarism, of our immaturity that we haven’t been able to shake off yet.
That’s the problem, is war. If there is something happening where I’m trying to gain supremacy over you, and that life and liberty are at stake in the context of that power struggle, it’s going to be an ugly and horrible thing in one flavor or another. We need to not have that happening, which may perhaps sound polyanna-ish, but we are more than capable of it in our current stage of evolution.
It certainly is a radical revolutionary departure — not evolutionary — from how we’re socially operating today, but that’s where the problem is. Until we solve it at that level, we should expect cyber war, other war, genocide, all these horrible freakin’ things happening on this planet.
And in this particular case the genie got out of the bottle and is now being used by another group, for malicious activity. But, ultimately, what are the responsibilities of government to ensure that the cyber realm remains safe for, call it civilian actors. I don’t know what your thoughts are on that piece.
So, we must participate in that game. We must participate in that battle. In so doing, we’re dealing with combustible, dangerous things. I think they’re a lot less dangerous than our nuclear arsenals, but it’s yet another really toxic, unpredictable thing that we have here that could have unintended consequences that you and I aren’t even qualified to speculate about.
You can find The Digital Life on iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher, Player FM, and Google Play, and if you want to follow us outside of the show you can follow me on Twitter @jonfollett, and of course the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios, which you can check out at goinvo.com. Dirk?