December 22, 2009
Not just a once-in-a-millennium thing
At the turn of the millennium, on the brink of the calendars
and clocks clicking to the year 2000, I spent the night at the
State Department in Washington waiting for something to go wrong
with the government’s, the nation’s or the world’s
computers. It was a long, dull night.
CNN producer Judd Ginsberg and I were among hundreds that the
network had stationed around the globe to see if Y2K, the millennium
bug, would wreak havoc on cyber communications. But as the millennium
dawned in Melbourne, Singapore, Delhi, Jerusalem, Paris, London
and, eventually, Washington, the feared glitch slept in.
Computer clocks rolled from 12-31-99 to 01-01-00. The fear was
that the glitch, based on software reading two-digit numbers
for the date, would revert back to 1900, rather than 2000, wiping
out a century and the relatively short history of computing.
The Clinton administration had hurriedly created a Y2K nerve
center in Washington to monitor the impending crisis. By that
New Year’s Eve, thanks to a drumbeat of media forewarning,
many organizations had spent billions fixing the glitch in their
systems. As a result, few systems were stymied. Y2K was mercifully
a dud. Judd and I shared a bottle of champagne and went home
about the time the millennium was breaking in Honolulu.
Now the Obama administration has created a “cyber-czar” to
oversee a White House cybersecurity office and coordinate the
government’s policies and efforts to protect military and
civilian networks. The digital networks are, the president says, “strategic
national asset” and the threat to them real. A recent report
indicated that with cheap software, Al-Qaeda or the Taliban can
monitor the same signals from a Predator drone as the U.S. military
with its billion-dollar technology.
compared to Y2K only a decade ago, is difficult to calculate.
Y2K was a benign, reparable glitch. Now we are subject to assaults
on a critical communications core that range from malicious phishing
to financial fraud to cyberterrorism.
If we heed
the ever present warnings, we install security software, spam
filters and backup drives. Then we grumble that the filter still
leaks the scam messages and blocks the memo from the company
Sometimes, we are the enemy within. A summer ago, I jumped in
a pool to catch a foundering grandchild with—you guessed
it—the cell phone in the pocket of my shorts. We lose phones
with all the numbers we cannot possibly memorize stored in them.
We send e-mail or text messages that we never should have, forgetting
that nothing is ever lost in cyberspace. Tiger Woods. Need I
say more? Cyber stupidity, not cyber security.
What has really happened in the decade since we watched the
clock tick towards Y2K, is that we have become ever more digitally
dependent. My iPhone is my phone, but also my pocket computer,
watch, camera, radio and, when I choose it to be, my newspaper.
Picking only a few of the gazillion apps, it is also my map,
flashlight, level and mindless entertainment when stuck in airports.
Our computers are our ersatz television sets, our long distance
phones (think Skype), and our free-of-ink-smear newspapers. Also
our billboards, photo albums and marketplaces. And thanks for
the e-Christmas cards.
These devices are subject
to all sorts of technical glitches and nefarious plots. We have
every reason to protect our personal and corporate assets, fiscal
and intellectual. Protecting the communications industry is an
industry in itself.
The media business may be struggling, but the gadgetry, in all
its glory, has never been more dazzling.
From a media perspective, we are still seeking viable business
models to fund and deliver strong, responsible journalism. We
should be as concerned with the undermining of valuable, purposeful
information by gratuitous innuendo and irresponsible distortion
as we are with the undermining of the security of our communications.
Terrorism is a many-headed hydra. It can blow up the station
or undermine the message.
Be careful out there.