Our lives are cyber driven

By Peter Goldmark


I’ve been searching for an article, or a blog, or a post that shines a spotlight on the important connection between the Japanese reactor explosions and the Gulf of Mexico oil blowout last year.

They’re both part of the same story: the dependence today of the human adventure on advanced technology.

Japan has almost no domestic sources of energy. The Japanese import a lot, and it was natural for them to “go nuclear” to generate electricity. The United States has dwindling oil reserves, and it was logical to authorize offshore drilling whenever and wherever possible.

Enormous ‘needs’

In both cases we are talking about “needs” that are enormous, and basic, to a modern economy. And in both cases, the technology involved is complicated, and mounted on such a large scale that if something goes wrong, the consequences are magnified. A tsunami is a natural disaster. The BP oil gusher and what may be an impending Japanese meltdown are man-made ones, arising from imperfect use of the technologies on which our economies are today completely reliant.

In some areas our dependence is nearly invisible but still very real. We can produce enough food to feed ourselves only with advanced technology — including pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers and genetic engineering to produce hardier or more productive crops. Our banking and financial systems are totally dependent on sophisticated, modern computers. So are our air transportation and electrical transmission systems. But while we are fixated now on natural disasters and the havoc they can wreak, the largest and most dangerous hidden weakness of our dependence on technology is the vulnerability of these systems to computer attack or breakdown. Remember Conficker? It’s a computer “worm” that first appeared three years ago and has evolved since then in both slyness and potential lethality. Is it run by organized crime? By a nation with advanced computer capabilities? No one professes to know.

But threats like that make you think about what systems in our interdependent globe rely heavily on modern, interlinked electronics.

The list is long — and central to the ability of our economies to function. Jack Goldsmith, an expert on cyber warfare, writes: “Taken together, these factors — our intimate and growing reliance on computer systems, the inherent vulnerability of these systems, the (digital) network’s global nature and capacity for near instant communication (and thus attack) ... and the difficulty anonymity poses for any response to a cyber attack or cyber exploitation — make it much easier than ever for people outside one country to commit very bad acts against computer systems and all that they support inside another country. On the Internet, states and their agents, criminals and criminal organizations, hackers and terrorists are empowered to impose significant harm on computers anywhere in the world with a very low probability of detection.”

Welcome to the 21st century.

Peter Goldmark, a former publisher of the International Herald Tribune, headed the climate program at the Environmental Defense Fund. He wrote this for Newsday. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

Copyright 2011 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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