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Equality, fame and the search for computer security

The trouble with equality is we only want it with our superiors. Unfortunately, there seem to be more ‘dohs’ than bright sparks in our society, making the pursuit of equality a tricky business.

Recent events in the cyberworld of loving viruses, however, proved that mere fools can gain global fame by wreaking havoc across the corporate wired world.

Three weeks ago, after petty viruses stopped global commerce, US government and computer industry officials scurried to a meeting in California to wail and gnash teeth about the immense vulnerability of both personal computers and the Internet.

What a cyber pickle we seem to have created. Both PC systems and the Internet are revolutionary, indispensable and, ultimately, non-defensible.

Both systems are less than a generation old and comparatively primitive, yet each is essential to most Western businesses today.

It appears that one non-geek teenage kid can wipe out thousands of corporate computer systems because their very foundation, the operating system, has had a force-fed evolution since the success of MS-DOS, with the result that we rely upon a system designed for one user who would treat it right. Great design brief.

Operating transparency, therefore, was not thought necessary.

Hyperconnectivity with zillions of strangers via the Net has evolved without regard for possible ‘oops’ consequences. If major ‘oops’ can occur through the Saturday morning mucking around of a bored teenager, imagine what havoc could occur through the concerted effort of cyberheads who really knew sophisticated programming stuff.

No wonder the US government is in a huddle.

We user-friendly cyberpuppies are becoming rather nervous about the everyday tool of email. After happily clicking away relatively risk-free in conversation with the world, opening messages now causes palpitations and hot flushes. When we see the word ‘attachment’, the adrenalin pumps as we hold our breath for the Russian roulette of hitting the enter key – do or die, welcome or wipeout.

Words of advice are sought from knowledgeable cyberheads: what should conscientious responsible cyber citizens do?

Answers are as varied as the viruses. Sounding like the old childhood warning about candygivers, we are now told to not accept mail from strangers. Hmmm, not the best way to treat potential clients.

While that may save us from unknown bogeymen, it is no defence against someone we know zapping us, either intentionally or as an unaware carrier.

Some corporate gladiators have banned attachments and removed floppy drives – drastic brain surgery which leaves the patient alive but not very useful.

The solution lies, not in policies of how to deal with inadequately secure technology, but in the design of the technology itself – greater transparency within our operating systems.

As Stratfor.com’s latest Global Intelligence Update (15 May) states, coming from the Boys’ Own paradigm of military security: The real threat from rogue States won’t be nuclear attack, but cyber attack.

The tragicomic thought is that only computers could retaliate. Perhaps this is real equality.

• Ann Macbeth is a futurist and principal of Annimac Consultants.

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