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How Vulnerable Are Our Digital Systems?

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How Vulnerable Are Our Digital Systems?

Authored by Jeffrey Tucker via The Epoch Times,

Last week a cyberattack hit a huge number of car dealers in the United States. The software designed by the company CDK was completely disabled, affecting the whole of an integrated process of purchasing and processing. Sellers could not process sales, loans, insurance, registrations, and much more. It happened suddenly, lasted two and a half days, came back, then went down again.

How did car dealers function? They wrote it all out on paper and pledged to complete the process after the systems came back. They are back and all seems well but the experience is a warning sign. These systems are far more vulnerable than anyone normally assumes. All it takes to shut down the modern world as we know it is a hack here and there. That’s an alarming realization.

The problem is that the technological revolution as we fashioned it 30 years ago gradually evolved in an ever more centralized way, wholly dependent on a weak and old-fashioned electrical grid of networks without much duplication or backstopping. The software too has become centralized for each industrial purpose. If one thing goes wrong in any system with a single point of failure, the whole comes to a grinding halt.

It’s amazing to consider that the old analogue world that lasted from the ancient world until the 21st century did not have this problem. It was more durable, physically anchored, fixable by human hands, comprehensible, and manageable. The move to digital everything introduced a fragility to the whole that we are only now discovering.

This is not only a problem for whole industries. It affects individuals too. A friend of mine recently came back to his car to discover that his iPad had snapped and curled up as a crumpled piece of metal in the heat, something completely unexpected. The same day, the screen on his laptop split from top to bottom, likely due to some physical impact. Bad luck but out of nowhere, his life came to a grinding halt, left only with a phone that was on its last legs anyway.

There are always answers here but everything involves a sudden expenditure of a thousand or two dollars plus many days wait. And getting back old material requires tapping back into a single account on a proprietary cloud that is itself vulnerable to hacking and leaks. And this is how we all live. We are dazzled and thrilled by all the snazzy things we can do with all our new toys but blissfully unaware of just how fragile the entire system is to technological contingencies.

This has all come as a bit of a shock to me, a person who came of age with the claim that the internet is forever and more durable than anything that came before. With search engines ever more curated according to stakeholder priorities, and sites dying the death of neglect and old code every day, we’ve come to discover the opposite. Links and sites that were essential only five years ago seem to have been zapped out of existence, by the many millions.

You know this if you have been posting articles for a long time. I can go back to an article I wrote ten years ago, if I can find it and it is still there, and try out the links therein. Most of them are dead now, meaning that the main way in which writers once documented their claims is completely unworkable now. And then it all happened in such a short period of time. In the “world wide web” it turns out that most of the strands of the web are as vulnerable as a spider’s own construction in a storm. It falls apart under the slightest stress.

This leads to an astonishing realization. It is easier to dig up an article written in the 1920s or 1930s, or the 1880s for that matter, than anything posted online after 1995. In practice, the internet is not forever. It is temporary, gauzy, ephemeral, changing, and forever replacing the old with the new. This means that digital technology enables the constant replacing of one reality for another, which is amazing.

Some years ago, I wrote something like 300 articles and 30 book introductions for a company I assumed would be around forever. The company was not able to make it according to profitability metrics and was replaced.

I watched from one instant to the next with amazement as the entire infrastructure flipped from one domain to another that did not carry any of it over, and all the accounts where the books lived were suddenly deleted from one minute to the next. Two years of my own work was suddenly vaporized. This was not malice at work. It was just the reality of business: maintaining the legacy simply did not pay.

I’m not bitter about this. It’s just business. Plus the same thing has happened to millions and billions of other pieces of content. Here today, gone tomorrow. This is the nature of the digital world. We’ve marveled at the cost savings of publishing and information distribution. It turns out that what you save out of pocket is paid for in other ways. You may never see it again.

Yes, there are ways to preserve content on the web, such as the brilliant service offered by but this one service cannot be expected to uphold the whole. It’s also extremely difficult to use. You have to know precisely what you are looking for before you can find it. Even then, it is hit or miss.

We may all somehow rue the day that we gave up our physical libraries and replaced them with digital readers. We believed we were modernizing and improving our lives, and increasing our physical mobility. No one ever enjoyed moving books from one place to another. But now we find that even our access to learning and wisdom is highly contingent and dependent on centralized systems that can be taken down in an instant.

It’s a terrifying thought that the whole of modern life hinges on such a thin foundation that can crack at any time, wholly changing reality in front of our eyes, taking down whole sectors, and disabling all functionality. We look back at the old days of analogue everything and consider it primitive but maybe that is completely untrue. Maybe it was far wiser to rely on systems that cannot break en masse and can be fixed by actual human beings when they break.

Many people worry about the implications of solar flares that can take down the internet in a flash. That is a legitimate concern. But the real threat is far more pressing and real. It is how any system can be hacked and compromised in any sector: car sales, real estate management, delivery systems, banking and finance, and payment processing.

t can all be here today and gone tomorrow.

All these systems claim to have redundancies but we have no guarantees of that. And we’ll never really know until they are really tested. Redundancy is just a management slogan. It might be real but most likely is not.

In fact, there have been very few serious stress tests of anything built over the last several decades. We’ve just barreled ahead, piling digit upon digit and trusting that everything is going to work just fine forever. We have no assurance of that.

You know who will thrive if the nightmare scenario actually comes to pass? The Amish, the Mennonities, family farms in rural areas, and other small communities that never went all-in with digital adoption. Maybe it was a mistake to toss out everything we knew from the industrial age and convert the whole world so suddenly to an ephemeral world built of 1s and 0s.

Tyler Durden Wed, 06/26/2024 – 23:00

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