Thursday, December 18, 2014

Are we losing out to evil?

It would be easy to think that the civilised word is losing out to the terrorists after the events of the past few days.

In Sydney the central business district is brought to a halt for almost 18 hours while a deranged gunman who claims he is connected with Islamic extremism holds hostages in a café. The siege ends in a hail of bullets leaving two innocent people dead.

In Peshawar, northern Pakistan, seven Taliban gunmen target a school and massacre 132 children and nine staff in an act so abominable it almost defies description.

And in the United States, Sony Pictures decides to scrap release of The Interview after hackers, almost certainly acting on behalf of the North Korean regime, threaten death and destruction on a 9/11 scale if  theatres show the movie, a comedy in which North Korean President Kim Jong-un is assassinated.

At first sight it seems ludicrous to put the third incident against the other two where so much blood was spilled, but I believe its long-term consequences for the West could be even more significant.

In the first two cases, the perpetrators paid for their crimes with their lives – little comfort to the victims and their loved ones, but at least they will never kill anyone again.

But with Sony the terrorist hackers (because that’s what they are) achieved their objectives without any danger to themselves. In fact they have probably learnt from their actions and are even more capable of striking again.

The group, which calls itself the Guardians of Peace, had already shown its abilities by hacking into Sony’s computer system and stealing a wad of emails, staff salary details and social security numbers which it published on the internet, as well as proof copies of five yet to be released movies.

The threat to movie cinemas seems less realistic, but it nevertheless had most chain owners running for cover. Before Sony’s decision to withdraw The Interview there had already been a string of cancellations of the scheduled Christmas Day opening in the US.

But what many terrorism experts fear is the extent to which the hackers could bring down crucial systems such as electricity grids, water and sewerage utilities and Government computer operations.

Could they, for instance, hack into a major dam’s network and flood towns and cities? At this point probably not. Government and utility computer defences are likely to be far more secure than that of Sony, which is already being criticised for not taking better care of its secrets.

Our leaders also seek to play down the fears. US President Barak Obama says there is no credibility to the hackers’ 9/11 threat – and he is almost certainly right. However, the extent to which terrorists can disrupt the normal running of society simply by threatening to do something, cannot be discounted.

Years ago, during the Northern Ireland troubles, a prominent British politician suggested to me that if just 10 per cent of a community’s population refused to be governed, the entire community would become ungovernable – in the digital age there is potential for chaos to be spread without a single person being physically present.

We are heading for very interesting times.      

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