Truth About Computer Security Hysteria
I learned a lot from PBS Frontline
Sunday, 27 April 2003
I WATCHED THE PBS "Frontline" special on "Cyber War!" My wife thinks I've mellowed out with age — I didn't scream at the television set like I usually do.
Among other things, I learned the U.S. Navy can't protect itself from Krusty the Clown screen icons. (Listen!)
No, I didn't scream. But I did take some notes during the show. I learned lots of new things, too. Let's see how closely your observations compare with mine:
The three most important things I gleaned from the PBS "Frontline" special on "Cyber War!"?
- An armed policeman stands guard over the official website of Mountain View, California.
- Journalist Barton Gellman receives classified FBI briefings. He also gets to read classified CIA briefings.
- Soon after 9/11, White House counterterrorism advisor Richard Clarke decided to fly around the country to look at routers & hubs while the rest of Washington's counterterrorism task force fixated on Osama bin Laden's terrorist network.
- You can always find an ultra-secret NSA-CIA cyber-warrior who will blab on-camera about highly sensitive issues if you agree to change his features & voice. He'll even let you film him as he walks through the corridors of a building.
- Believe it — an Al Qaeda terrorist grows even more dangerous when he takes a college computer class.
- Terrorists may already control "hundreds of thousands" of zombie computers, each waiting patiently for its one true master to command an army of the undead with "computing power beyond our imagination."
- A terrorist can dominate the Earth just by taking over Taiwan's computers.
- A terrorist can open the floodgates of a dam in Tennessee, or take down a significant portion of the national power grid, or over-fluoridate & under-chlorinate our toilet water, in "less than two minutes."
- Former FBI NIPC director Ron Dick "was up to my neck" with 9/11 problems (largely for this reason), but his office still managed to drop everything so they could watch computer security firms as they valiantly struggled to save America from the Nimda virus. Dick admits the FBI still doesn't know who added "billions of dollars in damage" to an already devastated U.S. economy one week after 9/11.
- Longtime Vmyths readers know the feds actually considered shutting down the Internet just to keep Nimda from shutting down the Internet.
- Oddly, the Justice Department never put a bounty on the head of Nimda's author.
- John Arquilla (labeled by Frontline as one of the first cyber-warriors in Desert Storm) didn't want to talk on-air about the Gulf War I cyber-war campaign — probably because he knows he got duped in 2003 by an ancient Gulf War printer virus hoax.
- If John Arquilla was a terrorist, he'd unleash a Nimda-like virus once a week for three months, thereby causing roughly the same monetary & psychological damage as one NYC terrorist attack. If Arquilla turned to the dark side, terrorists everywhere would praise his name.
- Frontline dwelled a lot on ancient mythology, as you can tell from their lengthy coverage of the 1997-era "Eligible Receiver" exercise and "Moonlight Maze" investigation.
- Neither Richard Clarke nor Ron Dick could talk about "Moonlight Maze" — but they went ahead and talked about it anyway. Later, Clarke reiterated he simply cannot talk about the investigation.
- John Arquilla claims to know truly frightening things about 1997's "Eligible Receive" exercise, but you gotta take him entirely at face value — the evidence is scary scary scary and it absolutely proves his critics wrong, but it's all super-secret ultra-classified eyes-only mega-need to know, so he can't show it to the critics to sway their opinions. This, from a man who got duped in 2003 by an ancient Gulf War printer virus hoax.
- "SCADA" dominated a large chunk of the show. It stands for "Speculating Creatively About Dastardly Attacks."
- Power grid expert Joe Weiss fears terrorists can remotely shut off electricity to "as big [of an area] as you want" for six months or more — and "I wouldn't even [call it an] absolute" worst-case scenario. You think deadly blizzards cause significant regional power outages? Bah! Just wait until Al Qaeda gives you a three-finger salute in the middle of January!
- You can always tell when the bad guys infiltrate your network because they cover their tracks with Krusty the Clown screen icons. In fact, the U.S. Navy sends officers to postgraduate school so they can learn how to protect the fleet from Krusty the Clown.
- Dozens of professors & beltway bandits signed a letter to the president to offer their services (for a fee?) to stop cyber-terrorists from using the Internet to damage "the national psyche and economy more broadly than did the September 11th attack." You can't Google for the letter, I regret to say, but you will find it here.
- "Manicured voices" dominated the show:
- Richard Clarke, John Arquilla, Ron Dick, narrator Will Lyman, and others want you to understand the gravity of the threat — so they use good diction, perfectly modulated speaking tones, generic American accents, strong phraseology, formal metaphors, and a carefully measured (almost rehearsed) cadence.
- Those rare few who'd call it hype tend to sound blasé & aloof and they rely far too much on casual or even humorous metaphors. They also tend to suffer from verbal hiccups, clutch phrases, false starts, rasps, lisps, and tongue clicks.
- A little humor about the power of Clarke's voice: "President Clinton's counterterrorism advisor lectured on the dire threat of cyber-terrorism at a women's college. I tell you, there wasn't a dry seat in the house."
- Richard Clarke mused: "every single time throughout recorded history, without a single exception, mankind learned its lessons the hard way numerous times about the dangers of every single technological advancement. I want mankind to learn just once, the easy way about the horrifying dangers of the Internet while I'm still alive so I can take ex post facto credit for saving a third of humanity from those cyber-terrorists and cyber-wars I constantly screamed about before 9/11."
- A somber music soundtrack can set the mood and focus the mind during a Naval cyber-war game.
- John Arquilla's grasp of the obvious.
[Credit where due: I stole the "dry seat" joke from the great Johnny Rotten.]
- Microsoft is the root of all evil.