• Living in Fear: A Fable for Trayvon

    July 16, 2013 // 7 Comments »

    The Commerce Department in 2012 claimed it suffered a foreign cyberattack that put its entire computer network at risk. It had to do with Trayvon.

    Commerce destroyed hardware worth $175,000, stopping only when they ran out of funding. Meanwhile, an outside cybersecurity contractor was hired at $823,000 to implement a $688,000 unneeded “solution.” After that, Commerce bought $1.1 million worth of new computers. The expenses ate up half the department’s technology budget.

    A year later, the Commerce Department’s inspector general determined the devastating attack was nothing of the sort, actually just a small malware infection on six computers that could have been erased with off-the shelf anti-virus tools.

    What Happened?

    Have a look at some of the explanations:

    — “In an environment of heightened vulnerability to cyberattacks, once you’re infected you often overact.”

    — “You feel violated.”

    — “All you feel is somebody’s in my house and I’ve got to get them out. And you get overly conservative.”

    — “[Commerce] did not know what it was facing. Under those circumstances, given the cyber risks, one has to be cautious.”

    — “It’s a question of which side do you want to err on?”

    — “Fear of foreign cyberattacks was so high that the department called in help from the Homeland Security and Energy departments, the National Security Agency and a private cybersecurity contractor.”

    — “Fear led the Office of the Chief Information Officer not to question the accuracy of the extent of the malware infection, despite a lack of supporting evidence.”


    Lessons Learned?

    At first brush this story is just another government screw up. Instead of assessing the situation, incompetent bureaucrats faced with a problem spent taxpayer money, lots of money. Expensive beltway bandit contractors sucked up panic spending cash to implement unneeded solutions. The whole thing was then hidden away until another beleaguered Inspector General stumbled upon it. The story gets reported with an eye-roll, fodder for the Daily Show.

    But look a bit deeper for the real lesson. Anyone controlled by fear will act this same way, desperate for solutions to the scary things they think are hiding under the bed. Actions capture more emotion than fact. That’s always the problem, isn’t it, trying to stay inside the lines when you’re boiling inside your heart.

    Even in 2001, considerably more Americans died of drowning than from terror attacks. Since then, the odds of an American being killed in a terrorist attack in the U.S. or abroad have been about one in 20 million, even less if you don’t work for the U.S. government or military. This real-world low risk isn’t evidence that homeland security spending has worked: It’s evidence that the terror threat was never as great as we thought.

    Indeed, from 2005 to 2010, federal attorneys declined to bring any charges against 67 percent of alleged terrorism-related cases referred to them from law enforcement agencies; the cases just weren’t terrorism.

    What you get is a society controlled by its fears. A lot like a guy I knew, Depression Kid, he kept old aluminum foil and shopping bags folded up in the basement, never threw out anything, used to lick the dinner plates clean in the kitchen when he thought nobody was looking. No matter what he achieved, Eagle Scout, college degree, captain’s rank, he could never rest. Nothing was ever, could ever, be enough.

    This leads in a direct line to gunning down an unarmed teenager because you fear the way he is dressed or the color of his skin. It leads to an internal spying system that can’t stop itself from trying to vacuum up everything for fear of missing something. It leads to a foreign policy that abandons hundreds of years of standards, norms and morality over a single “fugitive” person. It leads to an endless war on someone (Reds, Terrorists). You ban nail clippers on airplanes and force millions of travelers to trod through airports without shoes.

    Once you give in to the fear there is no end to things to be afraid of. When most of those fears turn out to be just made-up shadows– even non-viruses inside a computer network– unreal and unsubstantiated, nothing you can do can make them really go away. They don’t live externally and are not vulnerable to your countermeasures. Safety and security are fleeting, grabbed only in moments before the next threat grows inside you. Armed, you look for targets.

    Like an old Twilight Zone episode, the boogie men are inside you. Once you’re infected you often overreact.



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