Wednesday, December 15, 2010

On hackers and security breaches

I was having dinner with my father last night and he brought up a good point about Wikileaks, and computer hackers in general. For years, the prevalence of annoying viruses, trojans, and spyware have exposed weaknesses in the internet and in browsing software. We have responded over the years by developing firewalls, pop-up blockers, spam filters, secure browsers like Firefox, virus scanners, et cetera. As a consequence, the infrastructure of cyberspace is much stronger than it originally was. Theoretically, imagine if these breaches had never taken place. Our internet would remain as porous and vulnerable as it was in 1995. Then the day might come when those weaknesses could be exploited by an enemy cyber-attack, instead of by 15 year old hackers looking for bragging rights or viagra salesmen.

So in a sense, all of the hackers and viruses have strengthened the internet in the same way that infection and environmental insult strengthens the body's immune system. Funny that my dad was the one who made this analogy and not me, because he is a mechanical engineer and I spent the last year doing immunology research. In the recent Wikileaks controversy, thousands of relatively harmless diplomatic documents were leaked to the press by a US government employee. Embarrassing maybe, but not catastrophic. Imagine instead if one US government employee had been paid to steal and secretly deliver thousands of documents about the construction of nuclear or chemical weapons to the North Koreans or the Iranians. It is suddenly very easy to see that Wikileaks did us a favor for exposing these serious vulnerabilities in our system.

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