Sunday, December 27, 2020

#362 / Risk

The image at the top of this blog posting celebrates the board game "Risk," which can be played online. The online "risk" that I want to comment upon, however, isn't a "game." 

In an article published on November 27, 2020, New York Times reporters Ellen Barry and Nicole Perlroth advise readers as follows: "Patients Put at Risk as Russian Hackers Sabotage U.S. Hospitals." That is the headline I read in the hard copy version of the newspaper. Online, the Barry-Perlroth article bears the following headline: "Patients of a Vermont Hospital Are Left ‘in the Dark’ After a Cyberattack."

The events recounted in the article are pretty horrible. Hackers, believed to be Russian, penetrated the computer systems of something like a dozen United States hospitals and made it impossible for doctors, nurses, and other hospital personnel to access patient records. A hospital in Vermont was especially hard hit: "In Vermont, the damage radiated out through a sprawling network, hitting especially hard in the cancer center." Without access to patient records, chemotherapy and other treatments could not be given. Recovery will take "months and months," according to hospital administrators.

While the compromise of the hospital's computers took the form of a "ransomware" attack, in which the target person or institution is told that their access to their suddenly inaccessible computer files will be restored upon a ransom payment, the payments demanded in this instance were so impossibly large that it seemed that the real objective was not to obtain the ransom, but simply to create chaos and disruption. If that was the real purpose, it succeeded.

Besides the empathy any reader might feel for those patients affected - cancer victims in this case who are now facing their life threatening disease without any way to get immediate medical help - my sense is that this news story, and the stories documenting other hacks, more recently revealed, ought to make us rethink our commitment to computers in more general terms. Virtually all of our vital services, from hospitals, to power companies, to water companies, to... (you name it) are now increasingly reliant on computer systems that are susceptible to attack, and the consequences of such attacks can be life threatening. 

We have based our contemporary society and economy on the idea that the complex computer systems that operate them, mostly based "in the cloud," are reliable and secure. In fact, they are not. 

The issue is not unlike global warming, in this sense; the problem is huge, and while we can intellectually understand the danger, there is nothing immediate (until something bad happens) that suggests that today, right now, we need to start making profound rearrangements in how we have organized our lives.

And yet... so we must!

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