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Unplugging the Internet

Gimmicks, not worms and viruses.

by Barnabas
September 3, 2003

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Unplugging the Internet_Barnabas-Gimmicks, not worms and viruses Unplugging the Internet

The Only Solution?

Internet Virus Arrest Nabs Hopkins Teen
—Lead headline in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, August 30, 2003
This is a sad conclusion for me because, as Barnabas, I am a being who lives in cyberspace. Barnabas has no existence apart from the Internet.

But no one has come up with a better solution, and the software developers have had plenty of time to make internet security their first priority. Back in the infancy of the Internet, in the 1980’s, Oliver Wendell Jones of Bloom County ends up over his father’s knee for disrupting the stock market from his home computer. Before the spanking begins, Oliver Wendell says philosophically, “I guess I couldn’t expect him to say, ‘I did the same thing when I was a boy.’” We may no longer have the alternative to fix the Internet as it now is—an ungovernable hodge-podge worse than the power grid; we may have to unplug and wait for a whole new secure language to be written.

Oliver Wendell’s fictional spanking was nearly twenty years ago. We knew even then that it was theoretically possible for a ten-year-old to disrupt world commerce from his bedroom. We wouldn’t have laughed so hard if we had projected that twenty years later it would not only be possible but increasingly likely. If the industry actually cannot prevent hackers on technical grounds (instead of being lazy in its response), we are stuck with a no-brainer: the world cannot yet do its business on an internet.

The young man in Minnesota is eighteen, legally an adult, and a very big boy who wouldn’t fit over anybody’s knee. He is accused of criminal behavior, and I have no intention of minimizing that. If he is guilty, he deserves to be punished like the grown-up he is for doing grown-up harm. Appropriate punishment is for a court to discern. But it won’t change anything except for him and his family. What he did is easily in the reach of a child much younger. Someone doing even more damage, if caught, would end up in juvenile court and without a criminal record.

I won’t minimize it, but the government and the media sure do maximize it. The arrest of one computer-savvy young man was announced as though he were the mastermind of a conspiracy and not one of thousands with similar skills and the same susceptibility to temptation. This arrest is more symbolic than actual in its significance — more like the rescue of Jessica Lynch than like the capture of Saddam Hussein. The FBI reminds me of the young wife who dumped a can of stew into a casserole dish, covered it with refrigerator biscuits from the supermarket, put it in the oven, and then announced to her husband;, “See, I can too cook!” She put a meal on the table, and that was a good thing — but her boast outran her achievement by a considerable distance.

There are two independent contributing faults which have everything to do with morals and little to do with the criminal justice system. New laws will not fix this problem. In any case, we cannot make laws against the sin of euphemism and the motive of greed.

Euphemism in this case is attributing the crisis to “viruses” and worms.” Viruses and worms are natural phenomena, “acts of God.” They are living organisms that infect or “eat” other organisms. They have nothing to do with machines, but by using their names we lend a sense of inevitability to what goes on in our computers.

The boy in Minnesota is not God. He and others like him are inventors of human gimmicks building on — or destroying — the work of other inventors. We are not warring against principalities and powers, as St. Paul was in the spiritual realm. We have gullibly made ourselves targets of human mischief-makers.

The second fault is greed as a motivation: the greed of the software developers who rushed defective programs into the market at great profit to themselves and without due regard to the vulnerable position in which they were placing their customers, and the greed of the customers, so eager for new stuff that we did not wait for it to be perfected before we applied it beyond its capability.

Unplugging the internet, at least as a way of doing business, and devising a new secure language that cannot be corrupted may be our only option. The inventors of the destructive gimmicks did not cause our problem. They only took advantage of it.

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Sal Rosken from New York writes:
September 3, 2003
Perhaps we should close down all Banks because there are bank robbers, close down all the Stock Markets because there are insider traders, eliminate all credit cards because there is credit card fraud, eliminate all money because there are counterfeiters and dismantle the Social Security system because there is identity theft.

Barnabas' complaint about the internet: we did not wait for it to be perfected begs the question - which system of commerce is perfected?

In the real world inhabited by those who cannot afford to breathe the rarefied atmosphere of perfection compromises are a matter of course. Within the business world, many of the losses associated with the imperfection of the system are identified as costs of doing business and efforts are made to minimize them. That the Internet is not perfect should not come as a surprise or news to anyone, but the cure Barnabas proposes is worse than the disease.

Barnabas from The Partial Observer writes:
September 5, 2003
Sal Rosken says, That the Internet is not perfect should not come as a surprise or news to anyone, but the cure Barnabas proposes is worse than the disease.

Of course my proposal is not going to be taken seriously by anyone but Sal Rosken. It is an exaggeration, which I thought was a legitimate literary technique in a column like mine.

Mr. Rosken's comment is also an exaggeration: He has no way of knowing whether my exaggeration is worse than the disease because we cannot estimate how bad the disease will become.

The perfection I was calling for is modest--the perfection only of a security system, not of the vast complexity of the system (or lack of system). It's one thing to be robbed if I fail to lock my house. It's quite another if I am forced to live in a house that by design is impossible to lock--which is a rough analogy for the internet as it now is.


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