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Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Over The Barrel: Networked and vulnerable

A tightly-connected world is more imperilled by cyber attack, disease and global warming. It requires inspired leadership. India and China have an opportunity.

Written by Vikram S Mehta | Updated: July 2, 2018 12:44:13 am
Former US President Bill Clinton has co-authored a political thriller, The President Is Missing. The novel is centered around the theme of cyber terrorism. (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

Former US President Bill Clinton has co-authored a political thriller, The President Is Missing. The plot is thin, the language somewhat strained and the read a disappointment. But the book will do well. People will buy it out of curiosity and perhaps in the expectation that, whilst billed as fiction, the story line will be revealing of the inner and personalised dynamics of the White House. I read the first half of the book in earnest and skimmed through the second half looking for these revelatory nuggets. I found none but I did take away two messages. One, the more networked a society, the greater is its vulnerability to roguish genius. And two, more than perhaps ever before, the world needs inspired, courageous and selfless leadership.

The novel is centered around the theme of cyber terrorism. A “wiper virus” has been uploaded onto the internet. If activated, it has the potential to erase all software, wipe out all files including backup files and take down the entire operational system of the US. The hacker has a change of heart and informs the US President of what he has done.

He tells him the virus will detonate automatically at the expiry of a programmed time period. When that happens, “the computer would be nothing but a keyboard and a blank screen … electricity would be compromised … online health records would not be accessible … bank records would be erased … the flow of currency would be reduced to hand to hand transactions … the economy would screech to a halt … there would be mass panic and riots … and America would become the third largest third-world country in the world”. The problem, he adds, is that while he was responsible for infiltrating the virus, he does not have the password to “exfiltrate” it . This, he says, is now the challenge facing the US President who has but two weeks to avert the “Dark Ages”. The story ends well. The password is identified and the virus deactivated. But this happens not before the US President sheds his security detail, risks life and limb and goes “missing”.

It is because of the individual effort of the President and his intuitive interpretation of the facts and advice provided by an assemblage of the world’s most talented cyber experts that the mission is successful. The message is clear. The world needs not just technical talent but courageous, resilient and selfless leadership in the face of impending crisis.

I picked up this book whilst on travel and between conferences to discuss the “state of the world”. The novel’s two messages resonated because there was an underlying thread that ran across all the speeches made at these conferences. The world is a risky place and it is getting riskier. The foundations of the post Cold War, post Berlin Wall global system have weakened, the world is not a village, geography is not history, leaders are not doing enough to arrest the dangers of global warming and the “global commons” remains unmanaged. In this latter context, cyber terrorism was expressed as a major concern. One set of statistics brought into sharp relief the nature and extent of our exposure to this threat .

The world has a population of 7.6 billion people. Of them, 5.1 billion have subscriptions to mobile phones, 4 billion have access to internet, and 3.1 billion are active users of the social media. In just one internet minute, 4,50,000 tweets are sent, 9,00,000 people log onto Facebook, 1.8 million snaps are created, 3.5 million searches hit Google, 4.1 million YouTube videos are seen and over 156 million emails are sent. The point: The world must not ignore the consequences of being so tightly networked.

The historian Niall Ferguson has placed the consequences in historical context in his latest book, The Square And The Tower: Network, Hierarchies And The Struggle For Global Power . He avers that the 1,000-year old Roman Empire collapsed because of the viral spread of the “network borne threats” of religion (Christianity), disease (bubonic plague) and migration (the Germanic tribes). These threats spread because of physical and spiritual connectivity. They permeated every strata of the Empire’s governance and social hierarchy. The leadership did not anticipate or have the capability to contain the spread. The result was the erosion of the foundations of the Empire and its eventual demise.

The challenge of managing and mitigating “network borne” threats (cyber, pandemics, global warming) is on most government and corporate agendas. A tour d’horizon of the global landscape suggests, however, that instead of converging towards a common purpose for managing these threats, the world leaders are adopting divergent, populist and localised approaches.

Thus, US President Trump has set the cat amongst the globalist pigeons with his disruptive brand of economic nationalism, trade protectionism and twittered derision of multilateralism. The EU is riven by leaders like the PMs/Chancellors of Poland, Italy, Hungary and Austria who want to build a fortress against migrants and those like Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President Emmanuel Macron of France who hold steadfast to the benefits of a passport free “Shengen” Europe.

The UK has a default PM in office because the Conservative party is irreconcilably divided over Brexit and the members cannot agree on a more palatable alternative. President Vladimir Putin of Russia appears unconcerned about the implications of his action on global stability and the Middle East is a sectarian cauldron on the boil with the two regional hegemons, Saudi Arabia and Iran, in implacable opposition to each other. Latin America and Africa are, for the present, off the radar.

The only two countries that stand out in this landscape as islands of relative stability and strong leadership are India and China. China has recognised that this fragmented world offers an opportunity. It has projected itself, ironically as the custodian of the multilateral rules based system and it is using its financial leverage to broaden strategic relations. Its One Belt One Road is a manifestation of this intent. India has an opportunity also to take on a global mantle. It should do so.

The writer is chairman and senior fellow, Brookings India

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