The U.S. Senate passed a bill last week that would form a government-industry working group to "examine ways to replace automated systems with low-tech redundancies, like manual procedures controlled by human operators." The news release linked above specifically references an attack on the Ukrainian grid that succeeded only partially because of such manual technology:
This legislation was inspired in part by Ukraine’s experience in 2015, when a sophisticated cyber-attack on that country’s power grid led to more than 225,000 people being left in the dark. The attack could have been worse if not for the fact that Ukraine relies on manual technology to operate its grid. The Senator’s bill seeks to build on this concept by studying ways to strategically use "retro" technology to isolate the grid’s most important control systems.
The enthusiasm for all things automated and digital has run into a snag. The purveyors of so-called "smart" systems would like us to think that there are always digital solutions to digital problems. But, in truth, digital security problems merely reflect an ongoing arms race between security technologies and procedures and the hackers who work constantly to circumvent them.
In most cases, the hackers are after money as was the case recently with the flawed 7-Eleven app used in Japan that allowed criminals to reset passwords in customer accounts with relative ease.
The attack on the Ukraine, however, was almost certainly one orchestrated by a military cyberwar unit. The resources and sophistication of such units make the phrase "arms race" more than just a metaphor.
I have often written about the limits of complexity. (See here, here and here.) The idea that increased complexity could become a liability rather than an enhancement to our lives remains an alien concept to most in our modern technical society. We celebrate increased complexity and venerate the master technologists of our day as if they were high priests who hold the secrets to the realization of a techno-utopian heaven on earth.
We forget that such priests have vested interests more aligned with profits than service to humanity. Implementing manual or at least non-digital solutions short-circuits the arms race in the digital world and undermines the authority and profits of the high priests of technology. Expect them to fight the move proposed in the Senate bill should it become law.
We have collectively handed over much of our lives to Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, Apple, Cisco Systems, and a host of other technology giants. Their incentive is to figure out how to maximize power and profits in the short run. If that creates problems for all of us in the long run, well, as far as the tech giants are concerned, that's our problem not theirs.
To expect something other than a high-tech "solution" to come from our high-tech industries and their surrogates in academia and the media is pure foolishness. I am reminded of a quotation from author Upton Sinclair who once wrote: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."
If we truly want long-term solutions to the problems that vex us in our increasingly high-tech society, then we will have to look elsewhere than the technologists. Finding those who are creating such solutions takes a little perseverance since their solutions are not prioritized over the breathless front-page coverage of the latest high-tech "advance." But such people are out there, and apparently, there are at least a few senators who, on this one issue, could see past the beguiling rhetoric of the techno-utopian fantasists.
Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, Oilprice.com, OilVoice, TalkMarkets, Investing.com, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. He can be contacted at email@example.com.