As far back as 1983, there was concern that computer hackers could compromise our national security. Remember the movie that came out that year, “WarGames,” in which Matthew Broderick hacks his way into a military supercomputer and nearly starts WWIII?
Of course, I get weary of all the things I need to fear in this world. Naturally, there are many legitimate things to be afraid of, while some things don’t deserve such hand-wringing. How we assess threats divides us politically. Our fears are often what align us with one group or another. We are scared tremendously of something and it is infuriating when other folks don’t see the reason why. We want to assail their ignorance of what we see as primary problems. That’s fundamental to our political associations, left or right.
But everyone in modern society — however they stand politically — has to acknowledge our great dependence on computers and super technology. No, I don’t want to spend much time worrying about a hacker launching nuclear war or some other mass calamity. I doubt you do either.
But the world of computers naturally makes us very interconnected. And there is a certain vulnerability that is undeniable. I don’t think it’s something to fret about constantly, but willful ignorance isn’t a great alternative either. We are consumers in this high-tech market. But there are people who are on another level from most of us, who understand these high-tech workings with remarkable clarity — and these folks are not always the good guys.
I recently read a very interesting — albeit, darkly titled — article by Mark Bowden, called “The Enemy Within” in the May edition of the Atlantic Monthly Magazine. (If you want to read it, go to Google, type in “The Enemy Within” and “Mark Bowden” and you can find it.) Bowden writes about the ongoing battle between super-smart computer hackers and the computer nerds who are trying, unsuccessfully, to outwit them.
Putting computer speak in simple terms is necessary for a reader like me. I am to computer science what the 30 handicapper is to Augusta National on a windy day — that is to say, not far from tears with the difficulty.
But Bowden dumbs it down sufficiently for me. He writes in great detail of the “Conficker” worm, which has spread to millions of computers worldwide. If a kid says the word “conficker” in Germany, he might get his mouth rinsed with soap. The latter part of the word is slang for something bad in German. And if a kid says the word to a top-flight computer tech guy, well, he might get the same treatment. According to Bowden, Conficker is a very troublesome development in computer technology. Unlike the everyday viruses, this “worm” is widespread, nearly impossible to trace and has great destructive potential. We think of viruses causing very obvious problems, but it’s even creepier to think of bugs programmed to hide on your computer without detection.
Bowden likens our home computers to a spaceship. And the Conficker worm is like an invader who secretly gets aboard that spaceship and “knows it well enough to find a portal with a broken lock overlooked by the ship’s otherwise vigilant defenses — like, say, a flaw in Microsoft’s operating platform.” The invader repairs the broken lock and seals the portal shut behind him. He is careful not to trip any alarms. He then waits for instructions. All of the infiltrated computers form a “botnet” or a network of “infected robot” computers.
Bowden writes that hackers who can develop a “botnet” have something valuable to sell on the black market to a criminal enterprises.
“They (botnets) can be used to efficiently distribute malware, to steal private information from otherwise secure websites or computers, to assist in fraudulent schemes, or to launch denial-of-service attacks — overwhelming a target computer with a flood of requests for response,” wrote Bowden, who notes that such technology could also be used to infiltrate banking systems, energy flow, air traffic, health-care information, even “the Internet itself.”
That’s like a horror movie. No, I’m not trying to paint the picture of the computer Freddy Krueger here. I’ll add that this kind of stuff wears thin on me after a while. I just can’t muster great fear for very long. And being scared of my computer, well, I just don’t want to do that.
But that article drove home something that I already believe. We need to be vigilant about keeping important information off our computers as much as possible.
Because if we think we are the only people who can get to it, well, we may be sadly mistaken.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal.
"...ongoing battle between super-smart computer hackers and the computer nerds who are trying, unsuccessfully, to outwit them."
You make it sounds like the nerds just don't measure up in the "smarts" department, compared to the hackers. That may be true, but if all of the truly smart people are "bad guys", that is a sad statement of the morals to intelligence ratio, isn't it.
And keep in mind that the "bad guys" do what ever they want, when ever they want, how ever they want, regardless of morals, laws or rules, while the "good guys" have to "play fair" and follow the rules (laws). That's like playing football against a team that never gets called by the refs, but those same refs are watching your team like a hawk for every minor infraction. Simply put, its harder to be a good guy than it is a bad guy. If the black hat hackers REALLY wanted to prove how smart they are, they would change that hat to white and try stopping the "bad guys" themselves (and quite a few of them have done just that). It isn't easy to stay on the "good guys" team when you see the bad guys winning so easily. (Just ask some of the cops that have been caught crossing the line, I'm sure they will tell you all about it.)