Darkness and light on the net

In the cyberworld, knowledge itself is power and is countered by knowledge. Technology is the accessory. In the case of hacking elections, the internet provides a vast and dark new space for countries to carry out the age-old design of tampering with rivals.

MAX BECHERER/THE ADVOCATE/AP
VOTING MACHINES AT A WAREHOUSE IN NEW ORLEANS

Latanya Sweeney and her colleagues at Harvard University were essentially asked to keep their mouths shut.

Worried about the vulnerability of American voting systems, her team had looked into just how credible the threat was. What they found was stunning. “With moderate computer programming skills, hackers can make malicious changes to registration files that might affect thousands or even millions of votes,” notes the Monitor’s special projects writer, Warren Richey, in this week’s investigative cover story.

Publishing the information from the Harvard study could, in some senses, be seen as akin to publishing a how-to guide for bombmaking. It could show the bad guys how to do their work. But in publishing anyway, the Harvard team’s rationale was simple: To stay silent was akin to putting our heads in the sand.

Technology enables action as never before. An iPhone, after all, is millions of times more powerful than all the computers possessed by NASA during the first moon landing.

For cybercriminals munching on Doritos in their sweatpants, a string of ones and zeros can be more devastating than any cannon or missile. For those intent on stopping cybercriminals, all the potential schemes and sleights must be made plain to neutralize them.

And this is how technology is refining the nature of conflict. When it comes to bombs and bullets, knowledge is an accessory. It helps us build better armor or radar. But ultimately, the battle is a clash of flesh or steel. In the cyberworld, knowledge itself is power and is countered by knowledge. Technology is the accessory. 

In the case of hacking elections, the internet provides a vast and dark new space for countries to carry out the age-old design of tampering with rivals. Warren’s story shows graphically that one of the great challenges of today is figuring out how to expose and defeat the old forms of malice given a new cloak by the internet.

What’s interesting is that the exact opposite is also true: The internet is an enormously powerful invention for exposing secrets, lies, and disguises. Consider a story that ran in the May/June 2016 issue of Foreign Affairs magazine. “Transparency has long been a rare commodity in international affairs,” it said. “But today, the forces of technology are ushering in a new age of openness that would have been unthinkable just a few decades ago.”

Think about how the world can use satellites to watch, frame by frame, how China is building new islands for potential military stations in the South China Sea. Think about how Daniel Ellsberg had to photocopy the Pentagon Papers in 1971, while Chelsea Manning downloaded 400,000 documents one day and another 91,000 a few days later. Think about how people were tweeting about the Osama bin Laden raid before the president announced it.

In the internet era, secrecy is evolving into new forms. The years ahead will be a cat-and-mouse game of finding and exposing new hiding places. Yet the opposite is also happening as those same forces demand a more open and honest world.

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About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

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