Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Our Achilles' Heel

A burning issue for our government, businesses and civil society should be our increasing vulnerability to computer breakdown. Consider just three stories that were in the news recently:

* Air Canada had a small computer glitch (a communications error) that grounded planes for hours. One inconvenienced traveler said on the news, "Don't airlines have backup systems?" Apparently they don't. Planes were grounded for only six hours, but the ensuing mess lasted much longer and affected airports worldwide.

* Britain lost computer disks containing confidential details of 25M residents - all the recipients of child benefits in the country. The data is a potential goldmine for identity thieves, as it contains bank account information as well as personal data. The astounding thing about this is not that someone made a mistake and lost the disks, but that the government does not use strong encryption to protect confidential data.

* Fresh news broke about the al Qaeda "hacker wing" that is dedicated to cyber-terrorism. In late October, al Qaeda announced it would start its attack on November 11. Of course, al Qaeda is trying to keep us in a state of fear, but it's true that they have been targeting computer usage for some time; just last March Scotland Yard broke up a ring that was trying to bring down the British internet (particularly targeting the stock exchange).

Our computer vulnerability is already having consequences. For example, three years ago a friend of mine had a recurrence of breast cancer and was scheduled for chemotherapy in our local hospital. Her treatment had to be delayed for several months because of a computer virus that had disrupted the hospital's computer system. She died - just another unreported casualty of inadequately protected computer systems.


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