Friday, October 29, 2010

Is cyber terrorism the new swine flu?

I would strongly recommend, especially if you are of a nervous disposition, that you avoid reading the Strategic Defence and Security Review released by the UK government recently. The document makes uneasy reading.

The UK spends over £33-billion a year on defence. This is the equivalent of the total gross domestic product (GDP) of Mozambique, Namibia and Botswana put together. It is ten times the GDP of Zimbabwe and is three times the GDP of Afghanistan.

To justify this massive expenditure, even with a proposed 8% expenditure cut, the defence review is at pains to point out the numerous security threats to the UK. The threats read like the scripts for the next generation of disaster movies.

The issues posing the biggest security risks include terrorism, instability and conflict overseas, cyber security, civil emergencies, energy security, organised crime, border security, and counterproliferation and arms control.

Interestingly, the area that seems to have drawn much media attention is the newly identified threat of cyber security, which the defence review sees coming from hostile States, terrorists and criminals alike. The document notes: “Enemies will continue to attack our physical and electronic lines of communication. And the growth of communication technology will increase our enemies’ ability to influence not only all those on the battlefield, but also our own society directly. We must, therefore, win the battle for information, as well as the battle on the ground.”

It is strange to read a document that so blatantly calls for a war over information. But the most perplexing comment of all is that the defence review, a document allegedly focusing on security, highlights that the new threats from cyber terrorism are also an opportunity. The threat of cyber warfare, the document notes, means that the “UK government and British businesses . . . will derive benefits from the protection that effective cyber security measures bring to the UK economy”.

Such a statement guarantees substantial com- mercial interest in new profit-making security ideas. But this has also left me wondering if cyber terrorism is going to be the new battleground for scaremongers.

Just as we were told to fear bird and swine flu, mad cow disease and the potential impact of sheep with blue tongues, will we now be periodi- cally subjected to public hysteria about cyber threats? I predict a steady flow of millennium buglike fiascos where threats are identified, millions invested and spent, and then threats disappear without a trace.

This is not, of course, to belittle the prospects for real cyber terrorism. Recently, for example, a computer worm known as Stuxnet, which damages computer systems, was identified on machines linked to Iran’s nuclear programme. This looks like one of the first successful and systematic attacks on a State installation presumably by a country or group of individuals trying to scupper Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

The problem with all this, however, is that most of us know very little about cyber terrorism, hacking and computer security. The mere mention of cyber terrorism feeds into fantasies of computers slowly taking over the world as geeky James Bondlike cyber heroes battle their malevolent intent.

But computers do not make viruses or introduce them into systems by themselves – humans do. Most security breaches still happen through human error and through good old-fashioned security leaks like leaving documents unsecured.

The UK defence review acknowledges that “simple, common-sense security measures available to ordinary citizens and businesses would make a major difference if used widely”.

But I wonder, now that cyber terrorism has been put on the national security agenda, if common sense will prevail. Sadly, I suspect the business sector’s desire to make a quick buck and general ignorance about the limits of what computers can and cannot do will leave the taxpayer bamboozled and ripped off yet again as the UK government invests in all sorts of flashy, yet ultimately useless, new security technologies.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, October 2010. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 29 October 2010.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Making peace with the past in Northern Ireland

by Kieran McEvoy

"The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past." William Faulkner

As with much of Faulkner's work, the context is a society struggling with a legacy of bigotry, violence and a legal and political system that failed to respect civil rights for long periods. While the parallels with the American south aren't a perfect fit, it's hard to miss Northern Ireland's ongoing struggle with its history of violence, intolerance and rights abuses. Twelve years after the Good Friday agreement, the past continues to cast a long shadow.

As Ian Cobain details, hundreds of people convicted of paramilitary offences are now appealing on the basis that they were tortured or abused into confessing. These challenges are one fragment of a confusing mosaic of processes and proposals that still dominate the headlines and local politics.

By way of illustration, a few months ago the Saville inquiry exonerated those killed by the British army on Bloody Sunday in 1972. David Cameron's moving and generous apology, apparently constructed in the face of civil service opposition, brought some closure to the families and significantly altered the mood music among republicans concerning "dealing with the past". The Wright inquiry recently found no evidence of collusion in the loyalist paramilitary's death. Two other inquiries involving alleged state collusion in murder are due to report soon.

The Historical Enquiries Team (Het), a police-led initiative, is going through the painstaking business of reinvestigating more than 3,200 conflict-related deaths. The Office of the Police Ombudsman (Oponi), the body that investigates allegations of police wrongdoing, has a backlog of conflict-related cases that it estimates will take decades to clear. The Disappeared Commission, established to deal with those killed and "disappeared" by the IRA, continues to oversee periodic digs for bodies across Ireland.

Approximately two dozen conflict-related inquests involving security force killings remain unresolved in the coroners' courts, and further civil actions such as those taken by the Omagh families are planned. Below the radar, a range of people are facilitating dialogue between former paramilitaries and victims looking to learn more about the deaths of loved ones.

In 2009, the Consultative Group on the Past, established by Tony Blair, recommended the establishment of a Legacy Commission to run for five years (a truth commission by another name), a Reconciliation Forum and various other measures concerning storytelling, remembrance and a declaration against violence for political ends. With some tweaking, essentially this report provides a way to deal with many of these issues in one place. The current government has published responses to that document but appears uncertain how to proceed.

In the current climate, it is all too easy to use finance as a smokescreen for doing nothing. In this context, however, interminable legal proceedings, the work of Het, Oponi and the rest will continue regardless, and will all cost money. To establish a new overall body would require political will, but it is a more efficient and effective way to actually manage the past. Crafting a time-limited process, engaging lawyers in order to curtail legal expenses, ensuring the voices of victims are heard and respected are all surmountable design challenges. Without such a holistic process, the drip drip of disclosures will continue to destabilise the process.

Barak Obama deployed the Faulkner quote above during his presidential campaign when the views of pastor Jeremiah Wright appeared likely to derail his presidential campaign. With intellectual rigour and moral courage, Obama transformed the issue with an incredible speech on race, the past and a vision of the future in America. Cameron has already shown himself capable of similar leadership in his response to Bloody Sunday. It is time for him to follow through on that logic and put in place a process to deal with the Northern Ireland conflict as a whole, once and for all.

Source: The Guardian, 11 October 2010