Over the last year, I’ve been thinking about existential threats to our way of life and listing the ones that I’m aware of. I’ve known about the vulnerability of the internet, but reading this book led me to add the taking down of our infrastructure that depends on the internet to my list of existential threats.
In my daytime job, I’ve been able to educate myself about application security in order to be able to test such security. So I am somewhat familiar with the field of electronic security. None of what Joel Brenner writes about in Glass Houses is exaggerated. Almost everyone today enjoys the benefits of the internet but few are aware of its vulnerability. So much in our world today – delivery of electricity, banking and finance, defense, etc – depends on a single system that anyone has access to. If that system, or one of the many systems that depend on it, were to be shut down by hackers or cyber-warriors, what then? Here is some of what Mr Brenner writes:
. . . counterintelligence must contend with the penetrations of the public and private electronic networks that are the backbone of our communications, the storehouses of our technology, and the nervous system of our economy and government. The networks, I regret to say, are porous and insecure, vulnerable not only to casual hackers but even more so the professional electronic thieves and powerful foreign intelligence services. But we want seamless, effortless inter-connectivity and the productivity that comes with it – who doesn’t? And so our vulnerabilities multiply as we continue to privilege convenience over security.
Secrecy is to companies and governments as privacy is to individuals. Both rise and fall on the same technologies and cultural proclivities, and at the moment both are falling precipitously.
It’s becoming almost impossible to be anonymous anymore.
I might add that it has become impossible also to leave one’s past behind, to pick up stakes, and start anew someplace else – to have a second, or the third, a fourth change. Now nothing about one’s past is forgotten or forgiven – credit records, the indiscretions and mistakes of youth, a felony, a bad experience with a previous employer, driving records, health records. Everything is part of a person’s record and can in some cases be accessed by virtually anyone.
The internet was not built for security, nor was it built to be the commercial and financial backbone of an advanced, postindustrial economy. . . . We’ve taken an open system based on anonymity and meant for a small, trusted community of government officials and university scientists, and we’ve turned it into the backbone of our national commerce and much of our national and military communications. Few people, even among business and government leaders, realize how gravely vulnerable this situation makes us.
Our companies are under constant, withering attack. . . . This assault is constant, it is relentless, and it is coming from all points on the compass in ways both old and new. . . . about 108 foreign intelligence services target the United States.
Neither the United States government nor private industry can defend the networks on which our economic and national security depend. This situation is getting worse, not better. . . . Virtually every significant industrial, military, and commercial operating system in advanced nations has become electronic over the last two decades. Manufacturing control, military command and control, banking and financial systems – they’re nearly all electronic, most of them are interconnected, and many of them are unreasonably vulnerable to operation failure.
The principal risk of insecure networks is no longer merely purloined information. For a company, the larger risk is now losing the ability to do business. For the nation, the risk threatens to cripple the infrastructure that makes America work – banks, dams, railway switches, electricity grids, stock exchanges – even the military.
I have read two books over the last two or three years that I think everyone in the United States should read. The first was The New Jim Crow about the racism that is sunk deeply into our justice system. The second is Glass Houses. So what are you waiting for? Go out, get a copy, read it, and then pass it on to someone else. Do the same for The New Jim Crow.