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By Brian Robinson

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Will cyberattacks lead to bomb-and-bullets war?

Until now, the combination of cyber and war sparked notions of virtual armies slamming away at each other in cyberspace, a nasty confrontation online but relatively harmless for regular folks.

Perhaps that’s changing. According to an Agence France-Presse story out of Davos, Switzerland, at least, the U.S. seems closer to seeing a cyberattack as the basis for a declaration of traditional war.

The AFP quotes Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, as saying that prospect is now being considered:

If someone bombed the electric grid in our country and we saw the bombers coming in it would clearly be an act of war. ... If that same country uses sophisticated computers to knock out our electricity grid, I definitely think we are getting closer to saying it is an act of war.

Some people are trying to get ahead of this scenario. At the same meeting, the head of the U.N.’s International Telecommunications Union proposed a “first strike” treaty through which signatories would agree not to be the first to launch a cyberattack. A cyber war, Hamadoun Toure said, would be catastrophic.

Is it not a little ironic that, just as the U.S. and Russia seem near to a new treaty that would significantly decrease the threat of nuclear war, we may be edging closer to war caused by virtual phantoms?

Maybe we need a new Doomsday Clock.

Posted on Feb 03, 2010 at 9:03 AM4 comments


Agencies try to exploit 'free' data model

I was wondering how the business models would emerge to justify Data.gov and similar government Web sites. Here’s one out of Massachusetts: Get the free market to do government’s job for it.

At least that’s the message I’m getting out of this story about how public agencies there are hurrying to get data into databases so software developers will build iPhone apps and similar products and save those agencies from having to develop their own applications.

It’s government on the cheap, though the story talks about “improving” government service.

Maybe this is the way for cash-strapped government agencies to go. Stop pretending you are there to provide a service yourself, just become a data aggregator and let others innovate and deliver those services for you.

There’s a caveat here, however. Right now, businesses are exulting about all of the free data government will provide to them. But what happens when they discover they are actually doing government a favor – actually, doing work for the government -- and start demanding a fee for the job?

UPDATE: Not to slight what other governments are doing, of course, since this seems to be a growing trend. Here's a story on what San Francisco is attempting, for example

.

Posted on Feb 02, 2010 at 9:03 AM0 comments


Agencies try to exploit 'free' data model

I was wondering how the business models would emerge to justify Data.gov and similar government Web sites. Here’s one out of Massachusetts: Get the free market to do government’s job for it.

At least that’s the message I’m getting out of this story about how public agencies there are hurrying to get data into databases so software developers will build iPhone apps and similar products and save those agencies from having to develop their own applications.

It’s government on the cheap, though the story talks about “improving” government service.

Maybe this is the way for cash-strapped government agencies to go. Stop pretending you are there to provide a service yourself, just become a data aggregator and let others innovate and deliver those services for you.

There’s a caveat here, however. Right now, businesses are exulting about all of the free data government will provide to them. But what happens when they discover they are actually doing government a favor – actually, doing work for the government -- and start demanding a fee for the job?

UPDATE: Not to slight what other governments are doing, of course, since this seems to be a growing trend. Here's a story on what San Francisco is attempting, for example

.

Posted on Feb 02, 2010 at 9:03 AM0 comments


When iPods are killers

It’s easy to cast personal technology such as the iPod and iPhone and other modern items as beneficial or, at the least, as benign. Except that, in situations such as war, they might be the exact opposite.

An item in a recent Foreign Policy blog told about how Marines on duty carried their iPods into the field with them, and even listened to favorite music while on patrol. The result, so the story implied, was more injury and death than would otherwise have occurred.

You can pass this off as youthful exuberance, along the lines of texting while driving. Just ban the use of this equipment by young soldiers, and everything gets back to normal. Except that we are constantly told that the newer generations expect access to this kind of technology-driven experience as a birthright.

As smart phones, iPad, tablets and other equipment become standard issue for the military in order for them to do the job on the net-centric battlefield – as they will – how do you police the potentially deadly uses along with the good stuff? Is it even possible? And if you can, does that mean you should?

I’d love to hear people's thoughts about this.

Posted on Jan 28, 2010 at 9:03 AM14 comments


Cloud computing: 20 percent savings in five years?

The government of the United Kingdom finally published details of a strategy to take most of its computing capabilities to the cloud, which could cut its information technology bill by around 20 percent in the next five years, the Guardian reports.

Add to that the intention to greatly expand the use of open-source software on both central and local government desktops, and the creation of a government app store, and it seems the U.K. is vying for the job as the poster child for next-generation government computing.

It also has plans to replace many of the government’s phone land lines with voice over IP by 2017.

At least as far as speed is concerned, the announcement is a commendable. It was only last summer that the U.K. government published its Digital Britain plan in which it described plans for the G-Cloud.

Let’s take some time to let this sink in, however, because plans are one thing and implementation is another. As The Independent reported a few weeks ago, the U.K.’s success in pushing through these kinds of IT programs isn’t great.

Does all of this have any import for the U.S.? Could be, given that our own feds have shown some desire for the cloud and open systems stuff, particularly after the Obama administration took the reins. How closely the U.K. scenario (centralized government, parliament, socialism, blah, blah) comes to the U.S. style of (cough, cough) dysfunction is another thing, however.

Posted on Jan 27, 2010 at 9:03 AM1 comments


In cybersecurity, our greatest enemy may be...

When it comes to cybersecurity, we are constantly reminded of the threats posed by external adversaries, or about the inadvertent problems we sometimes cause because of our own lax practices. But what if the greatest damage comes from a deliberately designed weakness?

As security guru Bruce Schneier points out in a recent opinion piece for CNN, the recent and widely publicized hack of Google sites by the Chinese was due to a “back door” that Google itself built into its systems to comply with U.S. government requirements.

This is an old sore in computer security. Programmers since way back when have been building these back doors so that they can easily get into the program they built when they need to tinker with the code. At one time, it was presumed that only they would know how to do so.

Well, surprise! Smart hackers – and there are legions of them – also discovered those back doors and learned how to manipulate them. It’s now one of the first things hackers do to try and gain access to any software system.

Unfortunately, as Schneier also points out, “An infrastructure conducive to surveillance and control invites surveillance and control, both by the people you expect and by the people you don't.” If the FBI, National Security Agency and others insist on being able to monitor the infrastructure, then these kinds of back doors probably will always exist, and hackers — Chinese or others — will always have a way into our cyber systems.

There are some intriguing things being put forward to improve cybersecurity, both from a policys standpoint and through technology. For example, take a look at this Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's proposal for a “Cyber Genome” program. However, what use is all of this, when our very own surveillance obsession lays us so open to penetration by whoever can find and open the back door?

Posted on Jan 26, 2010 at 9:03 AM0 comments


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