TEOTWAWKI 8: Cyberwarfare (2017 Podcast Transcript)

[Only partial transcript available]

TEOTWAWKI 8) Cyber-warfare

Hello, and welcome to Physical Attraction’s TEOTWAWKI special series. This is the show where we deal with potential scenarios for the end of the world… one apocalypse at a time.

This episode: cyber-warfare.

When I was growing up, I read an awful lot of books. The best part of any day was the part when the real world would leave me alone — I’d finished my work in class, or I was done with homework, or in the car — and I could just read to my heart’s content. And so, for years, everyone around me was getting involved in sporting activities and making out with each other, and I was reading. One of my favourite places in the world is a little town in Wales — Hay-on-Wye — which surely has the highest density of second-hand books in the world. You could go there for a weekend with £30, come back with a boot-full of books. Happy days.

And I never felt like I was missing out on anything; because I had faith in the power of language. Because I felt like it contained within it a possibility that was practically infinite. Not infinite like numbers are infinite, but infinite in the way that the Universe is infinite; sure, it might actually have a limit, somewhere, but we will never be able to see beyond it; we will never be able to reach the edge. A practical infinity of words, and different combinations of words. And I thought they were infinitely powerful, too.

The only thing preventing me from achieving what I wanted — the only thing that could stop anyone — was a lack of information, and a lack of imagination. They didn’t have the ability; they didn’t have the words for the situation. But somewhere, out there, in that great semantic Universe, there must be — if only we could find it — the perfect combination. The novel that would make you a millionaire. The confident answers that would get you the job. The speeches that would tap into the psyche of a nation and make you politically powerful. The love-note you could write that would be just perfectly attuned to win someone around. I believed that — if not everything — most problems could be solved by just reaching out and grabbing it; the right combination of words in the right order.

And I believed in the infinity digits of pi. And I believed that if something is infinite, then it must contain everything. So, somewhere, encoded in the vast plains of this transcendental number, must exist the sentences that would persuade people to stay; the poetry that would shift and bend and change reality, with its own transcendence. I just lacked the imagination to find them.

Nowadays I’m a bit less convinced that I’m ever going to find magical keys like that. Maybe, sometimes, they don’t exist; and there’s nothing you can say or write that will change the facts. But when words and ideas can be perfectly synchronised with the lay of the land, with the way the world is: then you have something. Then you have power.

And it may well prove to be more power than the wealth and riches of the mighty. After all; so much of that wealth is no more than numbers on a computer screen, and records on file somewhere. It may well prove to be more power than is wielded by a politician; because that power flows from their identity, and what happens when it can be so easily stolen? And it may be more power than is concentrated in all the physical armies of the earth; because when their deadliest weapons are controlled by computers…

The word is the code. And if you own the code, you might just own the world. And we can imagine that, maybe, out there in the vast untyped hordes of imaginary binary strings — there are lines of code that could wreak havoc on modern society.

In terms of disruption, the lack of physical damage caused by cyberwarfare might make you think that it’s a less tangible scenario for the end of the world as we know it; so it’s this intersection of the cyberworld and the real world (or meatspace, if you like) that we have to look at. And what it lacks in the raw destructive power compared to, say, a supervolcano… I think that’s more than compensated by how likely it is to happen. It is already being used.

But how realistic is a real end times scenario? How much progress has been made towards cyberwarfare? How much of our system is genuinely vulnerable to attack? How does the land lie?

In an article he wrote for Foreign Policy, one of the people who first started using the term cyberwar talked about the changing nature of the threat. In Jon Arquilla’s view — when, in 1993, he first started using the term — the threat was mainly as a companion to conventional war. That is, as an army invaded another country, their hackers would simultaneously cripple the ability of the nation to defend itself. Almost playing the role that saboteurs and fifth columnists did in previous wars, by trying to create havoc in the defensive forces with sudden, short-term sabotage. This has since occurred; when Russia invaded parts of Georgia in 2008, the communications network for the Georgian military was hacked down; this smoothed the progress of the invasion. But this is not the only means by which people have considered — or even actually waged — cyberwarfare.

In a lot of ways, this question kind of boils down to: how much of our infrastructure, how much of what’s important to people is automated? And, of the stuff that’s automated, how much is in closed loops that would be difficult to hack externally? Which is an interesting question.

One little piece of historical trivia that’s always worth reminding ourselves of is that one time in 2010 that the stock market fell by a trillion dollars in 5 minutes. Maybe you don’t remember it? That’s because the stocks recovered to their previous values within half an hour. This event is still somewhat mysterious, but it was caused because so much Wall Street trading has become entirely automated; once the stocks fall below a certain level, more and more robots started to sell, wiping billions off the value of the Dow Jones. Eventually, attempts were made to pin it all on some rogue trading from one guy in London working out of his parents’ house, and he’s been arrested and charged. The man involved — Nav Sarao — is a fascinating individual. He may have made $40mn from the Flash Crash, but, by the time he came to be arrested, he was unable to post his own bail. The reason? He had essentially been scammed out of all of his money in an attempt to avoid tax. The Bloomberg report about him characterises him as an incredibly socially naïve mathematical genius: I don’t know how true that is, but it’s a fascinating life story whatever way you look at it. Other theories pinpoint a single, unusually large sell of $4.1bn dollars by a specific company sending the algorithms and human traders into overdrive. In reality, the exact cause — why this was triggered — is still not well understood, although there are plenty of theories. I’m not saying that a sophisticated cyber-attack that caused a global financial crash is necessarily possible; but what incidents like this show is that so much of our economy, so much of our lives, are more intangible and mysterious than they were before: and they are inextricably linked to automated phenomena. Human psychology has contributed to stock-market crashes in the past: it’s now necessary to worry about the psychology of algorithms as well. It’s an object lesson in the fragility of automated systems.

So, leaving aside the idea that trillions of dollars could vanish from the value of companies in a heartbeat without anything physically changing — what have cyberattackers been able to achieve so far?

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