Let me try to put this in context: it was just months ago that I gave up my old flip phone and reluctantly got an iPhone. And though I can indeed make calls on it and use it to check how far I've walked each day, footstep by footstep, it's remarkable how much I can't do. Don't ask me to send you a photo of anything or check my email on it or hail an Uber with it. In other words, call me a relic of another age, of a world in which telephones were significant-sized objects that sat somewhere in your house and that you hustled over to pick up when they rang. No one was capable of carrying them around in their pockets or checking the news on them, no less using them to text friends.
I've been introducing articles at TomDispatch for 18 years now a strange form that developed because, once upon a time in another age, it was a listserv in which I gathered pieces from publications around the world and introduced them to my readers, email by email. And let me say that, in more than 18 years of writing such introductions for original articles at this website, I've never felt quite as inadequate or unprepared as I do for today's remarkable piece by John Feffer.
Yes, in those years when I was growing up, our duck-and-cover thoughts often turned apocalyptic, given the looming threat of nuclear destruction then. But if, as I crouched under my school desk then waiting for a Russian nuclear bomb to explode, someone had told me that someday life could essentially be brought to a raging stand-still by a "cyber-apocalypse" (and you had explained to me what that was), I would have thought you the most inventive science-fiction writer of our times. And yet here we are. This is us, as John Feffer, author of the Dispatch novel Songlands (to be published June 1st), the final volume of his Splinterlands trilogy, makes clear today. Sci-fi is, it seems, now the essence of our lives. Welcome to the twenty-first century. Tom
Waiting for the Cyber-Apocalypse
The Cold War Has Already Turned Hot on the Internet
By John Feffer
America has a serious infrastructure problem.
Maybe when I say that what comes to mind are all the potholes on your street. Or the dismal state of public transportation in your city. Or crumbling bridges all over the country. But that's so twentieth century of you.
America's most urgent infrastructure vulnerability is largely invisible and unlikely to be fixed by the Biden administration's $2 trillion American Jobs Plan.
I'm thinking about vulnerabilities that lurk in your garage (your car), your house (your computer), and even your pocket (your phone). Like those devices of yours, all connected to the Internet and so hackable, American businesses, hospitals, and public utilities can also be hijacked from a distance thanks to the software that helps run their systems. And don't think that the U.S. military and even cybersecurity agencies and firms aren't seriously at risk, too.
Such vulnerabilities stem from bugs in the programs and sometimes even the hardware that run our increasingly wired society. Beware "zero-day" exploits so named because you have zero days to fix them once they're discovered that can attract top-dollar investments from corporations, governments, and even black-market operators. Zero days allow backdoor access to iPhones, personal email programs, corporate personnel files, even the computers that run dams, voting systems, and nuclear power plants.
It's as if all of America were now protected by nothing but a few old padlocks, the keys to which have been made available to anyone with enough money to buy them (or enough ingenuity to make a set for themselves). And as if that weren't bad enough, it was America that inadvertently made these keys available to allies, adversaries, and potential blackmailers alike.
The recent SolarWinds hack of federal agencies, as well as companies like Microsoft, for which the Biden administration recently sanctioned Russia and expelled several of its embassy staff, is only the latest example of how other countries have been able to hack basic U.S. infrastructure. Such intrusions, which actually date back to the early 2000s, are often still little more than tests, ways of getting a sense of how easy it might be to break into that infrastructure in more serious ways later. Occasionally, however, the intruders do damage by vacuuming up data or wiping out systems, especially if the targets fail to pay cyber-ransoms. More insidiously, hackers can also plant "timebombs" capable of going off at some future moment.
Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran have all hacked into this country's infrastructure to steal corporate secrets, pilfer personal information, embarrass federal agencies, make money, or influence elections. For its part, the American government is anything but an innocent victim of such acts. In fact, it was an early pioneer in the field and continues to lead the way in cyberoperations overseas.
This country has a long history of making weapons that have later been used against it. When allies suddenly turn into adversaries like the Iranian government after the Shah was ousted in the 1979 revolution or the mujahideen in Afghanistan after their war against the Red Army ended in 1989, the weapons switch sides, too. In other cases, like the atomic bomb or unmanned aerial vehicles, the know-how behind the latest technological advances inevitably leaks out, triggering an arms race.
In all these years, however, none of those weapons has been used with such devastating effect against the U.S. homeland as the technology of cyberwarfare.
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