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Truth about computer security hysteria
Truth About Computer Security Hysteria

To foster information sharing, we must destroy democratic information sharing (part 4)

George C. Smith, Ph.D., Editor-at-large
Monday, 18 December 2000

RICHARD CLARKE, WILLIAM Clinton's anti-terrorism bulldog in the National Security Council, gave the media a parting gift before the clock runs out on the current administration with still another of his seemingly infinite number of speeches on the ever present danger of "electronic Pearl Harbor."

Unsurprisingly, a two year review of Clarke literature in the news media shows the public record of the National Security Council advisor's speeches and interviews to be almost utterly devoid of substantive discussion on computer security and "cyberterror" but rich in cliche and numblingly over-reliant on simplistic and unsubstantiated claims.

In fact, Clarke's public work resembles looks like nothing more than a ham-handed campaign of threat-mongering propaganda notable for only two features:

  1. the fact that it passed almost completely intact through the lens of an alleged free mainstream press; and
  2. its constant Orwellian attack on the Freedom of Information Act under the guise of strengthening national security and the quaintly Orwellian euphemisms — "legal impediment" and "facilitation of information sharing."

In the late 1860's, a con man induced a farmer near Syracuse, New York, to bury a cheap gypsum statue that had been crudely altered to resemble a giant, fossilized man. The statue was then "discovered" and proclaimed "the Cardiff giant," the scary remains of a specimen of a lost race said to have wandered the hills prior to the coming of man.
Although immediately dubbed a fake by a few who smelled a rat, there was a great deal of popular acceptance of "the Cardiff giant," which spilled over into the news media of the time.
Andrew D. White, the first president of Cornell University and one of the "giant's" earliest skeptics, remarked in his memoirs of the affair: "There was evidently a 'joy in believing' in the marvel, and this was increased by the peculiarly American superstition that the correctness of a belief is decided by the number of the people who can be induced to adopt it."

Part 4: The real world intrudes

"Well, I can't really promise it's going to be a cold winter, but I can tell you that if we don't protect our nation from the new threat that it faces it could be a very cold winter for a number of years." — Richard Clarke

One of Richard Clarke's favorite mantras is the idea that hackers, cyber-infidels, anonymous national foes, will turn off the electricity. It is an inescapable inhabitant of his speeches — often accompanied by words to the effect that Americans should be prepared to strike back militarily at any who attack our infrastructure.

But Richard Clarke has never made any account for the intrusions of the real world or indicated any appreciation of the true complexity of American techno-civilization and the unpredictable ways in which we can incommode ourselves.

Take for instance the supply of electricity in California during the winter of 2000. Throughout December, the state agency which monitors the supply of electricity in California has issued regular alerts that the power pool would fall below five percent and even three percent of capacity, eventually necessitationg the imposition of rotating black-outs in what is, traditionally, the lowest time of power consumption in southern California.

The reasons for this developing problem are extremely complex and have been discussed in depth in recent issues of the Los Angeles Times. And they are, by most accounts, unpredictable and insoluble in any quick manner. However, they chiefly revolve around the deregulation of the state's electrical utilities in 1999 and the delivery of the power supply into the hands of the private market. When this happened, the state utilities immediately sold many of their power plants to out-of-state companies which where in no way obligated to sell the power these plants made back to California, or even to run them at all.

In the resulting corporate free-for-all, rates to customers doubled and tripled in San Diego (other areas have been protected by a price cap set to be lifted in 2001) and power normally set aside for California was sold in the Pacific Northwest where it commanded more profit but generated the threat of black-outs in the Sunshine State. Eventually, as a stop-gap measure, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson was lobbied by state politicians into declaring the situation an emergency. And he ordered the out-of-state power suppliers to furnish California with its electricity needs.

Your editor-at-large poses the rhetorical questions to Richard Clarke:

  1. In this instance of electrical deprivation, who should be bombed? The politicians who legislated the deregulation? Or the corporate headquarters of the company in Texas that bought many of the power plants from the California utilities? Both?
  2. Would amending the Freedom of Information Act, in the future, aid in protecting against this virtual attack on a state infrastructure?
  3. How do we prevent this "electronic Pearl Harbor" in the Golden State from happening again?

"You black out a city, people die. Black out lots of cities, lots of people die. It's as bad as being attacked by bombs." -- Richard Clarke

NEWS ITEM: (Associated Press — December 17) "More than 100,000 people waited Saturday for electricity to be turned back on as the latest in a series of storms blew blinding snow across the nation's heartland ... More than 100,000 homes and businesses across Arkansas still had no electricity for heat and lights Saturday ... some people might not have power until Tuesday said a state official. An additional 30,000 were still without electricity in Louisiana ... three days after the areas was hit with an ice-storm ... and 32,000 other remained in the dark in east Texas."

''Debunking Richard Clarke'' computer security audio CD now available