With a Whisper, Not a Bang

Note: I feel it important to note here explicitly, though it is always the case, that my views on this page are exclusively my own personal opinions, and not endorsed in any way by my employer. Further, I am not sharing any information gained from my position, just my general thoughts from working in the field of cybersecurity. Basically, this ain’t policy, folks.

When I first arrived at the Senate they handed me a stack of papers and told me I’d be working on passing the Senator’s cybersecurity legislation. I was bummed. I didn’t know anything about cybersecurity and I didn’t want to. It intimidated me, because I thought it was highly technical, and deeply unsexy.

I was wrong. The best thing that ever happened to my career was being handed that stack of papers and told to get smart on cybersecurity. It changed the trajectory of my work and enabled me to carve out a niche for myself where I am privileged to work with some of the smartest people in the country. It allows me to learn more every day, because the field is changing and growing every day. But I love the field most because it is simply the newest arena for the discussions we have been having since the country was founded, around privacy, the free flow of information, and the appropriate locus of power in a still young nation.

When you work where I work doing what I do, people really like to ask what keeps me up at night. I think they’re expecting an answer out of 24, so I don’t want to disappoint them with the truth, which would be something along the lines of “Well Bob, you know there this existential dread about our inexorable march towards death coupled with my increasing terror over finding myself single and solidly in my mid-thirties, plus student loans.” They want to know what you’re afraid is going to go bang in the middle of the night. People understand the bang.

But here’s the deal: the future isn’t going to have a lot of bangs. In some ways this is great: cyber “war” can have a much lower death toll in an immediate battle sense, leaving aside what might happen if critical infrastructure (dams, electrical grids, telecom etc.) gets attacked. But the bang is also an announcement of trouble. We all know that the bang is bad. But what about an intrusion onto our networks? What about the use of information gained through hacking to wreak havoc on our cultural and social systems?

People in my field are freaking the fuck out about this news regarding a nation state hack of the DNC (and possibly also the RNC) and the subsequent leak of private emails, with the intention of influencing the outcome of our Presidential election. But they seem to be the only ones. Perhaps the idea is too abstract, or seems like it’s not a big deal, because no one died. But the public is more incensed over hacked and leaked nude photos of starlets than they are about the intended undermining of our election*. Maybe it is because there is a visual, in those cases. So let me put it in terms that we can all understand and be enraged by: this hack grabbed the nation by the pussy and then put it on reddit.

Pundits, the few who are actually discussing this, keep trying to draw inaccurate parallels calling things  a “cyber 9/11” or a “cyber Pearl Harbor.” I wish they would stop. There’s no reason to undermine the horror of both of those days by comparing cyber attacks with kinetic ones. But it is an excellent example of how our dependence on intersecting technologies, and our reliance on an increasingly hurried news cycle makes us less discerning, thoughtful, and vigilant.  And I want to be very clear, I am not saying that this hack actually changed the outcome of the election. I leave that to others to determine. This is a not a piece about how I think the election was rigged. This is a piece about how our nation’s institutions were attacked, and perhaps, Cassandra-like, my attempt to rally us to a new way of thinking about attacks.

In my work, I often tell people they are worried about the wrong things. They are worried about someone hacking into their car and driving it off a cliff, not the smartphone with every ounce of their personal data that they’re plugging into the car each morning. But humans beings are drawn to fire, and to the bangs, not to nuanced and unseen activities that they can’t wrap their arms around. I get that. I’m sympathetic. But are going to need to change what we’re looking for, what keeps us awake at night. Turns out the future will not be televised, but it will be online.

*Of course this is also terrible and part of rape culture, I’m just saying we need to be paying attention to all of it, not just what’s sensational.

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