When I tried to visit Homeland Security Watch on December 3rd, I saw a colorful but impersonal web page from the largest ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) accredited registrar in the world yelling, like a Depression-era sheriff’s deputy at the front door of the farmhouse,
“NOTICE: This domain name expired on 12/02/2011 and is pending renewal or deletion.”
I do not pretend to understand how this whole domain name registration business works, or why one company can be worth 2 billion dollars registering domain names. I think I could find out. There’s lots of information on the internet, so the explanation is there somewhere. But I’m resigned to just letting that bit of knowledge go.
Turns out the credit card used to pay for this domain expired. Once that oversight was corrected, something or someone somewhere did something “technical” and Homeland Security Watch got out of internet purgatory to be given yet another opportunity to provide “News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security.”
In 2010 the the United Kingdom version of CNET reported
“A would-be saboteur [who was] arrested … at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland made the bizarre claim that he was from the future. Eloi Cole, a strangely dressed young man, said that he had travelled back in time to prevent the [Large Hadron Collider] from destroying the world.
The future “is a communist chocolate hellhole and I’m here to stop it ever happening,” the obviously deluded man told police.
I do not pretend to understand how the Large Hadron Collider works or how, even in theory, its efforts to demonstrate the reality of the Higgs boson particle have any chance of succeeding. I could learn. But I have to leave this to someone else to figure out.
Trevor Eckhart is someone who took it upon himself to figure out something that bothered him.
A few days ago, this Eagle Scout, rock/roller, system administrator from Connecticut posted a video about something called Carrier IQ.
Carrier IQ — depending on who and what you read — is either a way for phone companies to help you get better cell phone service, or a way for a third party to monitor just about anything you do on a smart phone.
Trevor Eckhart wanted to know what the Carrier IQ software – “installed by default on many mobile devices, unbeknownst to most consumers” – did. He conducted some research and published his results on a website called Android Security Test .
The Carrier IQ company sent him a nasty letter, threatening that lots of very bad and expensive things would happen to him if he didn’t immediately get rid of his research, acknowledge it was all lies, and basically just go away. Here’s a copy of that letter: eckhart_cease_desist_demand_redacted.
I do not pretend to understand how rootkit software works, whether Carrier IQ is rootkit, whether their software simply helps improve performance or eavesdrops on smart phones; whether it’s the phone companies snooping, the smart phone manufacturers, or — “the gov’ment.” Or maybe it’s just the technologically paranoid or illiterate overblowing the threat. I could learn, I suppose. But I’m just going to have to leave that to someone else — like Trevor — to figure out.
In his book “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark” Carl Sagan wrote something I’ve used before on this website:
“We’ve arranged a global civilization in which the most crucial elements … profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.”
I think Sagan is correct. Absent a maoist reeducation initiative, I wonder what can be done to improve national understanding of science and technology.
Some people believe it’s too late for us to do much of anything about it.
Ignorance generated by the complexity of everything is a ground truth growing like kudzu.
“One morning last [May], to the surprise of many denizens of the Internet, when they rose from their beds and padded to their PCs in their pajamas many of their favorite online haunts simply weren’t there. From Reddit to patient-monitoring systems, every website running on one section of Amazon’s Cloud Services had vanished.”
Amazon responded with its message 65648:
We now understand the amount of capacity needed for large recovery events and will be modifying our capacity planning and alarming so that we carry the additional safety capacity that is needed for large scale failures.
Peter Bright at Arstechnica puts his explanation of the outage — essentially Amazon initiated a denial of service attack against itself — under the headline “Amazon’s lengthy cloud outage shows the danger of complexity.”
He also noted the larger problem with complex phenomena:
“[The] company won’t know for certain if the problem is solved unless it suffers a similar failure in the future, and even if this particular problem is solved there may well be similar issues lying latent.”
Or, as someone named Petrarch summarizes,
“…not only does Amazon not know if they’ve properly fixed things, they cannot know it. Their cloud is just too complex.”
Petrarch could also have been describing the complexity of homeland security – writ in its globalized majesty:
Even in the early technological era, the reach of any one disaster wasn’t too great. A railway bridge collapse could cut off a town for a few weeks, or a failed telegraph cable disconnect Europe and America from instant communications, but there were other ways around. Famines were purely local and were made less severe with improved transportation and better farming technology.
Today, however, “the world is flat” and everything is interconnected. The American housing bubble spread economic havoc over the entire world. Nobody knows why it happened, so there’s no guarantee that the recent changes in laws and regulations will do any good at all.
… when food runs short due to bad weather in Russia or Americans turning too much corn into gasoline, food prices rise everywhere. All the world’s poor are priced out of eating at the same time.
… New England stood still for days in the Northeast Blackout of 2003; a century ago this wouldn’t have been possible since the various city grids weren’t connected. Good news: plans are in place to tie the national grid closer together, so we can take down the whole country all at once.
Grids and interconnected networks appear all over the place where you’d never expect them. The recent Japanese earthquake disasters wreaked havoc on Toyota and Honda’s manufacturing supply chain. No surprise there; they’re Japanese companies.
Time for American car makers to rake in the dough, right? Nope: GM had to shut down American plants because they buy parts from Japan, and GM can’t make American cars without Japanese parts.
As the world ties closer and closer together, we become more vulnerable to failures on the other side of the globe that we can’t control or even see.
In past times, there were potential disasters that could destroy an individual, town, or country, but at least people knew what they were and could pray to their God for protection from famine, pestilence, or whatever. Now, totally unimagined technological failures can foul up or, conceivably, take down our entire global society. Our technology is so complicated, so interconnected, and so hidden that we don’t even know what to pray for protection from.
We’ll have to upgrade the traditional Scottish prayer:From ghoulies and ghosties And long-leggedy beasties And things that go glitch in the night, Good Lord, deliver us!
And, Lord, while you’re at it, please help Homeland Security Watch remember when its credit card expires.