What would Gene Hackman do?

Gene Hackman is one of my favourite actors. Many of his movies are favourites, but two come to mind one wet weekend late last year, The Conversation, and Enemy of the State. In both Hackman plays paranoid surveillance type characters, obsessed with privacy. Both are thrillers, where Hackman is at odds with the powers that be. The Conversation is a bit more purist than Enemy of the state, but both are great films. How did we get here, talking about Gene Hackman’s acting merits. Well, sometime ago, I read a fascinating article in The Saturday Paper, by Karen Middleton on Cyber security

It got me thinking about cyber-attacks, and cyber wars, and what would recovery look like from one of these. It’s something that I feel like the mainstream emergency management sector  doesn’t really think about. I am sure there are some people in black pyjamas in a bunker in a secret location somewhere who think about this, but we in the sector don’t.

I recall one of the first World Economic Forum Global Risk reports that I read talked about what they called “weak signals”. A threat that experts agreed could be an issue, but had no data to support it. The threat they identified in this report was the hyperconnected world, and our reliance upon it. Transactions, communications, systems, way finding, sense making, all rely upon connectivity. And what would a large scale outage look like. I’m not sure that we know, as it would be difficult to predict. We could predict some linear consequences, ie ATMs are inaccessible, but like a chess game, what is the consequences two to three moves ahead, people don’t have food, people miss a credit card payment, the bank charges interest, the person is no longer able to make payments etc etc, they become homeless. We are dealing with what Antonella Cavallo calls System of Systems, which ramps up the complexity.

So much of our personal data, whether we willingly (some not so willingly)  give it up because services ask us for it, or unwittingly (though our browsing habits) is stored electronically. Identity fraud is a significant challenge, and we know from disasters the significant distress people have in not being able to identify themselves in the aftermath. It’s fundamental. A friend of mine who had his identity stolen  took 18 months to recover it. This could be widescale, and require significant resources to resolve

The internet is quite robust, because of its decentralised nature (given it was set up to enable communication after a nuclear war had destroyed conventional communications. But even still, elements of it are vulnerable to attack, according to Rod Beckmann from the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. What if it were to “go dark”. He suggests we wouldn’t know what the impacts, because of the reliance upon the internet of many systems.

If you think about the ubiquitous smart phone, that we have collapsed so much of our lives into, its our memory, camera, money, banking, maps, music collection, train timetables, workplace tether, time waster,  radio, football scoreboard, pub argument problem solver, and, oh communications device. What happens when we lose the device, the loss that we feel. Many people when we ask, what would you take from a “burning house”, say my phone. I have been pretty dismissive of this, until you start to think of the role that it plays. It is interesting (and sad, as a map nerd), to see how people can no longer read maps or work out where they are. John Huth’s book, the Lost art of Finding out Way, details how people are losing their spatial awareness.

People increasingly draw support, and validation from internet based communications, social media. Social media addiction is increasingly becoming a concern. The loss of social media could have short, and possibly long term ramifications. We don’t know.

We saw the consequences of the South Australian power failures.  A report by the UK’s Royal Academy of Engineering, suggest that after a four day power outage, it is too hard to predict what the consequences are. It’s commonly thought that there would be social unrest and an increase in crime during power outages. Counterintuitively, during an outage after 9/11, New Yorkers threw open their homes to people who couldn’t get home, went out onto the streets to talk with neighbours. Back in 98, when Victoria lost its gas supply, neighbours shared their showers with others, and community sporting facilities became community hubs, people gathered to shower, eat.

We Australians endured #censusfail last year, when the population census moved for the first time to on line completion, only for it is crash/behacked/be attacked depending upon who you listened to. It was kinda annoying because you sat around waiting to see if you could get on. It was roundly embarrassing for the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the Government and IBM. But what if it was the banking system, the aircraft control system, building systems, power systems, missile control systems. We are reassured that these sort of things would never happen, but the whole notion of the black swan incidents, are that we don’t see it coming.

The aftermath of #censusfail scuppered any idea of moving to electronic voting (that coupled with the rumours of Russian interference in the American Elections). Confidence and trust in systems were shattered, and could take a long time to rebuild. This might be system wide, perhaps losing faith in internet, ebanking, eservice portals. Might banks have to increase branch locations, or teller staff to increase with demand?

It’s a whole new area for many of us used to dealing with bricks and mortar disaster. It will need different thinking to resolve. What would Gene Hackman do? Would he as Edward Lyle shout “the NSA can read the time off your fucking wristwatch?” or as Royal Tenebaum  “ who wants to grab a couple of burgers and hit the cemetery? Who knows? We need to find out.


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