Mass Hacking: Time To Go Off-Line

Global Ransomware Attack Shows It's Time To Take Vital Services Off-Line
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Britain's state-run National Health Service was affected by last week's mass cyber attack.
Britain's state-run National Health Service was affected by last week's mass cyber attack.

Last week’s mass cyber-attack could produce the wrong lessons. The immediate takeaway seems to be that large institutions need much better cyber-security systems.

But there’s a much simpler and better solution: Vital systems that can’t withstand the catastrophic risk of malicious hacking should just go offline.

Hackers will always be able to find ways of getting into networked systems. The fantasy of ever better cyber-security is delusional. We could spend half of the GDP on network security, and someone will still find a way to hack it ― in a digital infinite regress worthy of Mad Magazine’s “Spy versus Spy.”

The recent mass hack was an effort to collect digital ransom via bitcoin (a monetary solution in search of a problem that central bankers could shut down overnight if they had the nerve. Bitcoin’s main legitimate use seems to be illegitimate transactions, money laundering and speculation — a related topic for another day.)

But just as worrisome as free-lance, ransom-seeking hackers is cyber-warfare by governments. If things get really nasty, large networked systems―from hospitals to banks to electric power grids, air and rail travel, water supplies, and of course national security itself―are sitting ducks for one government to mess with another.

The solution is for large, essential systems to disconnect from internet-based networks. Call me a Luddite, but I wonder if that would be so terrible. It might even be a blessing in disguise.

We are all too dependent on cyber stuff ― and more and more of us are getting sick of the takeover of our lives and our privacy. The networked life, as the new dystopian movie, “The Circle,” makes clear, can be more imprisoning than liberating. Cyber-hacking of large systems on which society depends provides the explanation point.

Robert Solow, the Nobel laureate in economics, famously observed in 1987, “You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.” This observation was before the mass use of the internet, and we are still waiting for the productivity payoff.

The economy actually grew faster (and grew more equal, too) in the years before the cyber-era. We vastly improved the public’s health, put men on the moon, devised systems for mass travel by commercial jet, and invented one scientific breakthrough after another—all without the internet.

Many of these innovations, of course, involved computers. But computers and the networked society are separate variables. Had the internet never been invented, it’s possible to imagine that computer-driven innovation would have continued and expanded.

One reason why the internet age has not produced bursts of productivity is that it is a massive time-sink. Hiring legions of cyber-security experts would be a purely defensive time sink that would produce nothing of value — what economists call a deadweight economic loss.

If large systems such as banks or hospitals, among the prime targets of hacker attacks, simply went offline, as some national security computers already do, people could still use email if they chose, could still have access to Wikipedia, and even (for the more addictive personalities among us) put personal information on Facebook et al.

But we would be more secure in our reliance on large systems. I certainly don’t mind a trip to the bank to get cash from a live teller, in exchange for knowing that my personal financial information is less likely to be hacked. The banking system worked just fine before everything was online.

As for the medical system, the largest proprietary system of computerized records for doctors and hospitals, known as EPIC, has been a multi-billion dollar sinkhole and the target of mass protests by doctors.

The hands-on clinicians who I know would be grateful for the chance to go back to paper records that don’t crash and that don’t waste massive amounts of physician time.

Social critics such as Evgeny Morozov have written of the “right to disconnect.” Others such as MIT’s Sherry Turkle have issued trenchant alarms about what the digital age is doing to our heads and our social competence.

Now, cyber-hacking is giving us another reason to wonder whether we need some firebreaks. We do.

Off-Liners of the World, Untie!

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School. His latest book is Debtors’ Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility.

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