She moves fast. She talks fast. She covers a lot a ground and rarely looks back. When Carolyn Nordstrom is done giving a talk, everyone in the room is out of breath. Never more so than when her subject is the cyber version of fire and brimstone—the dark, subterranean world of the computer hacker. I suspect there are few times in the university when listeners leave so fully believing in the existence of Hell—at least the hell that she was describing.
Computer hacking has been around a long time. It preceded the internet. Some may remember having to be wary of sharing invisibly infected floppy disks. The global spread of hacking, made possible by the internet, is also not new. Users around the world are aware, however dimly, of the likelihood of lurkers in dark corners.
Nordstrom brings two important matters to the public discussion of cyber security. First, she offers a mountain of data demonstrating the reach, and perhaps more terrifying, the high level of organization and entrepreneurship of the hacker’s world. And then she adds the central question, “Why don’t more of us know about it?”
She layers statistics upon statistics. Experts estimate that as many as 15% of all computers have suffered a “drive-by” infection or some other undetectable change to their basic operating system that pulls the computer into a botnet. The computer becomes a zombie totally at the mercy of a bot master to send spam, disrupt major web services, or collect private information like social security numbers and passwords.
Nordstrom talks about internet regions, “the dark net,” that only those in the know can find, and how cyberattack supplies and support services are readily available there. “Click here for money laundering.”
“It’s in front of all of our faces, but we don’t see it, and we deny it exists,” she says. “The facts are terrifying, but what is more scary is what we don’t see. I’m an optimist. If I can see it, I believe it can be fixed. The fix to the spread and power of cyber warfare will take the efforts of a generation of new students.” Indeed, the very young may be more on top of these issues than most adults, and she quotes one twelve-year-old, “The chaos is coming. You adults don’t help.”
The internet and the potential it offers for attacks level the cyber battlefield and redefine our most basic concepts of power. “The individual has the same power as the military in the hacking world.” Those who explore and attend to the hackers’ world can quickly become hackers themselves. It doesn’t take a huge government organization to master these skills.
Her talk is thin on moral proclamations and on solutions. “I don’t want to alienate anyone from the discussion right now, and I don’t want to pre-empt or stifle your suggestions for solving the problem.” The only advice she offers at the moment is, “Let’s talk. Let’s get this subject out into the light.” That’s the first step, but there are many questions left to answer. Why, if so much power is vested in the hands of a few individuals, have they not brought down power grids or the world’s online money systems? Why do individuals acknowledge the existence of a dangerous online world, but turn to their laptops and other connected devices as though they themselves were invulnerable? And what should we do to change things? Should we hide the extent of the threat (and so the panic that would ensue) and rely on individual morality and mutual trust? Or should we train all the world to hack so that they can recognize it when they see it and find ways to protect themselves from it?
Carolyn Nordstrom is on the anthropology faculty at the University of Notre Dame. She has devoted her career to the ethnographic study of dangerous issues—war in Africa, drug trafficking, human trafficking, and other transnational crime. She has published several books, most recently Global Outlaws: Crime, Money, and Power in the Contemporary World, based on three years of research into illegal trade around the world, research that took her to some of the world’s most dangerous places. She spoke in Bloomington as part of the “Framing the Global” joint initiative of the IU Center for the Study of Global Change and the IU Press, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.