Monday, May 03, 2010

Networks A Mixed Blessing

Many years ago at the dawn of what we now call the digital age, Thomas Watson, then CEO of IBM, was alleged to have opined, “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” While this was a misquote of a very shrewd business leader, the substance of this observation is not too far off the mark. More and more computers and other digital devices need to be interconnected in order to provide all the services now available at home, at work or on the road. The need for processing power built into the individual devices, be it a netbook, a smart phone or an iPad, is lessening as all of these devices are now interconnected via networks and the Internet. Indeed there are relatively few large super computers serving up information and services. The power of the internet is in the connectivity.

While this “distributed power” of networks and the Internet is a enabler of our world economy and our modern lifestyle, it is also our “Achilles Heal.” In his new book, Cyber War, Richard Clarke warns that warfare in the future will not be fought with bombs, guns or even unmanned aircraft. Rather, he notes, our foes are building new forces and weapons aimed at our computer networks. This cyber-arms build up is largely unnoticed by the public. Nevertheless, it is posing a danger of premeditated or accidental cyberwar, which in turn could trigger violent conflicts across the globe.

In conflicts of the past, warring armies concentrated on destroying bridges, rail lines, and highways as they were all needed for a country to carry on day to day commerce. Today with almost all of our daily routines dependent on computer networks and the Internet, the target of our foes has changed. The systems controlling the phone calls we make, the electricity flowing into our homes, the money from the ATM, and even the water used to brush our teeth in the morning, all rely on computer networks. This is the new ground zero.

Few of us using home or office computers have been spared the irritation and inconvenience of viruses. Even with software to detect them, some continue to get through wreaking havoc on our personal data. While this is a hassle, it pales in comparison to the results of a failure in one or more of these national and international networks. Clarke points out that the military has in place isolated networks protected from outside attack. That is not the case with most businesses, utilities and financial institutions They share the same Internet with us mere mortals . So a cyber warrior may be able to turn off the lights in a major city using the same network as the teen hacker uses to place compromising photo of his principal on his school’s webpage.

In the not too distant future, the military might of a nation may well be vested in the computer engineers and programmers rather than in fighter pilots and physical armaments.

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