Friday, January 25, 2013

The Insecurity State

James Fallows has published several good articles recently on what he terms the security state. However, an article I encountered while looking at the recently publicized exploit in the Java applet container made me think that it actually makes more sense to call the problem by another name: the insecurity state.

Consider the following passage from an article attacking (inappropriately, in my view) the Java™ programming language:
In an era where the United States and Israel have launched a quiet cyber war against Iran and others with worms like Stuxnet, and Iran has counterattacked by trying to take down U.S. banks' websites, it won't be long before Java is used like the lax airline security was on 9/11 to make something really bad happen.
 That makes the proposition admirably clear. "Security" experts tell the public what they must do: a round of humiliating "security theatre" at airports, getting rid of a computer language system. If we, the public, don't want to follow the security experts' advice, then the government or someone must force us to do it; for our own good, of course.

Thus, in the late 1970s President Carter's national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski decided to deal with the then Soviet threat by giving the Russians their own third world insurgency, and helped send thousands of young Islamist militants to Afghanistan. Watching the Soviet Union crumble, the militants formed an exaggerated idea of their place in history, and turned on their American sponsors, most spectacularly on 9/11. So now, thanks to an insurgency fostered to deal with one threat, we have a different threat. Now that at least some countries have developed cyber-weapons, the same cycle has encroached on the Internet and the World Wide Web. Some of our own governments have turned the computer transactions and infrastructure we depend on for our information, finances, power and water into targets.

We cannot solve the problem by taking all the "security specialists" and dumping them on a remote island; the cycle of insecurity depends on patterns of thought that we all share to some extent. But like all bad habits, each person can resist this pattern of thinking, or not.

The first symptom of the kind of thinking that produces the national insecurity state shows up, perversely, as a demand not to think. Don't think, don't consider alternatives, don't count costs. Wise or more informed people than you or us know what to do, and if we don't do it right away, they have every right to make us do it, so we'd better take the solution offered. Right now.

The second symptom shows up, more subtly, as an aversion to any kind of long term thinking. If we must think, the demand goes, we must focus on the immediate crisis. We should never look back to understand how the problem started; we must never look sideways, to look for different solution, we can never look ahead to see where the proposed solution might lead us. We have to keep our eyes focused on the immediate problem and the obvious response. In graph theory, this goes by the name the greedy algorithm, and in complex problem sets with unknowns, it has a nasty habit of failing.

The third symptom of insecurity thinking presents as an absolute aversion to patience. The paragraph I quoted from above begins with the sentence "We can't wait much longer," and ends with "Stop it now." A companion piece on the same theme ends with the sentence: "We can't afford to tolerate the Java problem anymore." These writers make the point clear: we can't afford patience! But it takes patience to muster evidence, weigh the alternatives, consider the costs, and to come to a wise decision. A sign on the wall at a computing center where I worked said:
Good decisions come from wisdom. Wisdom comes from experience. Experience comes from bad decisions.
This only works for those who take the time to understand  why the bad decisions they made produced the results they did. It takes less time, and certainly less wear and tear on the ego, to focus on the immediate problem and what we can do about it right now.

All of these modes of thinking have their attractions. Sometimes, they even make sense; an attitude of calm deliberation would not have served the British well at Dunkirk. But lurching from crisis to crisis never makes sense in the long run. Wise choices require careful thought, and in the instances where a crisis requires immediate action, it makes sense to consider the least far-reaching response required to avoid making the problem worse, and then spend some time thinking.

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