As many of you know, one of my specialties is framing complex technology concepts in more simple, human-relatable terms. When people have a better understanding of the tools they use, they have a tendency to use them more efficiently, effectively and to take better care of them. A thoughtful article in the Atlantic written by security guru Bruce Schneier got me thinking about cyber security and the internet in a new way.
Cyber attacks are something most people only comprehend at a conceptual level, but even high-profile victims and their big-budget investigations struggle to really understand what actually happened. In the case of the Sony attack, even the experts are still debating who was behind the attack, and it’s a definite possibility that we may never find out. As Schneier deftly points out, with physical attacks (criminal and political) there is usually a trail of evidence and witnesses that allow us to identify the weapons and attackers as well as motives.
Unfortunately, modern technology and the internet have made it possible to perpetrate large scale, damaging attacks that are difficult to see (even when they are underway), vexingly hard to counteract and sometimes impossible to trace back to the aggressor. In the case of Sony, does it even matter who was behind the attack? Would they retaliate? How? For those of us suffering under a never ending tide of smaller malware attacks held back by only the thinnest veneer of defenses, there’s no one person to arrest, group to disband or government to disrupt that will stop the onslaught. It’s largely anonymous, amorphous and pretty much dangerous to everyone who comes in contact with it.
It’s better to think of malware and cyber attacks as the digital equivalent of pollution.
It’s certainly a lot easier to visualize, and the analogies might help everyone understand and better prepare themselves for the next time they head out on the digital highway. It may also help organizations and governments frame their actions in a more productive manner. Even if North Korea was actually behind the Sony attack, is leveling sanctions against them really going to stop future attacks? No. Neither will hacking their internet nor any other retaliation measure we could take. Why not invest efforts in combating internet “pollution” (you could lump hate speech in there as well!) – instead of putting fingers in a leaky dike, why not see if you can reduce the pressure causing the leaks?
It’s hard to imagine how the cyber equivalent of solar energy or the banning of CFC’s might be able to stem the growing miasma of malware choking our technology, but maybe that’s because we are thinking about it the wrong way.