The Double-edged Sword of Technology

Alan Zendell, August 23, 2022

Ask any computer or IT specialist about technology, and you’ll hear a litany of all the ways our twenty-first century world couldn’t function without it. Everything from cars, planes, electronics, televisions – even modern refrigerators and dishwashers rely on computer chips and Internet connections. If your eyes haven’t glazed over by then, you might be treated to an even longer list of the dangers that poses.

The only positive result of my father having to work as a gas station attendant after World War 2 was that after a couple of years, he could fix most anything that went wrong on a car, which included his 1949 Ford. That car gave our family mobility and freedom it couldn’t have had any other way. Cars broke down, and people had accidents, but no one considered owning a car a liability. Is that true today? Cars are far more reliable than they were seventy years ago, but they have evolved to where an automobile mechanic almost has to be an electrical engineer.

One of the world’s earliest warnings about our dependency on technology occurred on September 1, 1859. A “massive solar flare with the energy of 10 billion atomic bombs…spewed electrified gas and subatomic particles toward Earth,” causing the entire telegraph network in North America to fail. It was most people’s first introduction to electromagnetic pulses (EMPs.)

What came to be known as The Carrington Event, after the English astronomer who observed it, was an unpredictable natural phenomenon, and in 2021, scientists warned that the sun was entering a five-year stretch of intense activity that could result in the same kind of event. This time, however, the resulting EMP could destroy every computer chip not properly shielded against it. Everything we own that depends on computer chips would instantly become a pile of useless junk. A rare event, you say, but one of our adversaries could obtain the same end by exploding a high-yield nuclear weapon in space, directly over country.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. The internet poses a much larger, if subtler risk. There’s not a website or media platform, a corporate or government computer system, or a personal computer or smart phone that cannot be hacked. We can build overlapping levels of security to protect our information, if we have the resources to pay for them, but the very nature of electronic systems means we can never achieve 100 percent security, and that only addresses the overt risks.

The Internet, while changing billions of people’s lives for the better, also introduced an insidious level risk capable of undermining our way of life, if not destroying it completely. The problem is anonymity; when we communicate with someone on the Internet or spend hours on social media sites, even when we believe we’re interacting with entities we trust, do we really know who’s on the other side of the computer screen?

We’ve seen many frightening examples in recent years, from the spread of child pornography to people being robbed of everything they own, including their identities, but those both result from overt events. The worst existential risks are the ones we don’t see coming. Social media platforms are like giant Trojan horses, promising us great gifts and benefits, but hiding a much darker potential. Our government has confirmed, repeatedly, that foreign actors constantly invade our social networks, either as bots (automated propaganda generators) or people with nefarious goals pretending to be someone else. It’s been estimated that as many as one of every five Facebook accounts has a faked identity.

Just as gun advocates claim violence isn’t the fault of guns, but of the people who use them, we might argue that the real culprits aren’t the bots and hackers, but the millions of people who believe everything they read on their computers without checking the facts. Whatever the reason, the effect is devastating. The lack of security in our social media threatens our elections, our personal property, our savings and investments – even our personal and national security.

Today, we have new evidence of how serious a problem this is in a whistle-blower complaint filed by Twitter’s former head of security. Before he was at Twitter, Peiter “Mudge” Zatko was a hacker. He was highly respected throughout the IT world, the kind of character that has frequently been popularized in films and television programs. Some might question his motives, but not his credibility or expertise. Zatko claims Twitter “allows too many of its staff access to the platform’s central controls and most sensitive information without adequate oversight. [He] also alleges that some of the company’s senior-most executives have been trying to cover up Twitter’s serious vulnerabilities, and that one or more current employees may be working for a foreign intelligence service.”

It sounds like a wild accusation, and it remains to be proven. But any reasonable person would ask how much smoke you have to inhale before you wonder if something’s on fire. I believe we’re way past that point. If our major social media platforms don’t clean up their acts, everything we hold dear will be threatened.

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