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Truth about computer security hysteria
Truth About Computer Security Hysteria

Nobel Peace laureate threatens computer annihilation

Rob Rosenberger, Vmyths co-founder
Wednesday, 1 September 1999

A Nobel winner claimed a bunch of reflexive liars who don't know Indonesia from Micronesia would lash out at a second-world nation in the South Pacific right after they finished the evening shift at Taco Bell.

A NOBEL PEACE prize, an oppressed political movement, and computer viruses. You'll get the media's attention if you can use all three in a single sentence. Believe it or not, laureate José Ramos-Horta threatened a full scale cyber-war if Indonesia meddled with East Timor's independence ballot. The 1996 Nobel winner offered this verbatim warning in a newspaper commentary:

More than 100 computer wizards, mostly teenagers in Portugal, Spain, Ireland, Belgium, Brazil, the US and Canada, are preparing their own battle plan. They are targeting the entire computer network of the Indonesian government, army, banking and finance institutions to create chaos. A dozen special viruses are being designed to infect the Indonesian electronic-communications system, including aviation.

One computer wizard recently told me: "We will terminate their banking system. We will invade their sites and destroy them. People will be scared to travel to Indonesia when they know that we are also infecting their air communications. We will cause them to lose hundreds of millions of dollars."

A Nobel Peace laureate coordinates with dangerous computer wizards scattered around the globe. The literal demise of a nation's banking system. Deadly viruses infect voice transmissions between pilots and air traffic controllers. Hundreds of millions of dollars in cyber-destruction. (Australian dollars or U.S. dollars?) Even worse: no antivirus vendor offers a cure, which means these new viruses might infect computers around the world. I doubt the Swiss can stay out of this war...

So. A bunch of reflexive liars who don't know Indonesia from Micronesia may, or may not, cripple a second-world nation in the South Pacific right after they finish the evening shift at Taco Bell. I've got two words for Indonesian officials: "precautionary disconnect." Those dangerous computer wizards will declare victory when the pings stop — then they'll go back to watching the new Weird Al Yankovic video.

Does anyone really believe tourists will avoid Indonesia because of a computer virus? I don't mean to dilute Ramos-Horta's message, but ... okay, I take it back. I do mean to dilute his message. Atomic geography lesson,[1] folks: Indonesia lies just north of Christmas Island. Forget antivirus software — you better pack a Geiger counter in your travel bag. Brochures for Jakarta city recommend SPF 15 while sleeping in your motel room.

Indonesia lies just north of Christmas Island. What concerns tourists more: a computer virus or nuclear fallout?

Nuclear fallout doesn't scare away tourists, yet Ramos-Horta believes a dozen computer viruses will. He needs to spend some Nobel prize money on a clue meter if you ask me.

Actually, some people did take Ramos-Horta seriously. (Not tourists, though.) Indonesia's Foreign Ministry labeled it an "extremely serious" threat requiring "preventative action" and went on to say "this is terrorism against democracy." A spokesman for East Timor's TLD (top level domain) provider also denounced the threatened cyber-war.

After the vote, MSNBC reported only a "slaughter" in East Timor. The online story includes a graphic snuff video but says nothing about computer viruses. The Sydney Morning Herald likewise reported "a war zone last night after hundreds of pro-Jakarta militia took control of the East Timor capital, sealing off roads, torching houses and laying siege to the main United Nations compound." Again, no hint of a horrifying cyber-war.

Whew! Just your everyday death, destruction, oppression, U.N. impotence, deportation of reporters, etc. Thank God! No one wants a repeat of Kosovo (aka "Web War I"). Still, I'm ready to upgrade my antivirus software the instant Reuters sounds the alarm.

Australian Associated Press correspondent Karen Polglaze put this issue in proper perspective. "Asked whether he agreed with [Ramos-Horta] that hundreds of computer hackers would seek to disrupt Indonesia's banking, airline and other vital computer systems should the ballot not be fair, [imprisoned resistance leader Jose "Xanana"] Gusmao threw up his hands, saying he had spent 18 years in the jungle and seven in jail, so he knew nothing about computers."