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October 1, 2010
In their July 3rd Briefing “Cyberwar: War in the Fifth Domain”, The Economist laid out three major security threats in what they refer to as the fifth theater of war, cyberspace.  At the lowest level, there is ongoing spying, reconnaissance and theft; at the middle level, there is the potential for a significant disruption to the internet; at the top level, as we become ever more interconnected, there is the potential for utilizing the internet to disrupt our physical infrastructure.

Focusing on a significant disruption to the internet, they claim that “a loss of confidence in financial data and electronic transfers could cause economic upheaval”.  What is an upheaval?  Is such a thing possible, and if so, what scale of internet security disruption could trigger it?  How would it affect our future use and enjoyment of that infrastructure?

Secure network protocols are something we take for granted daily, but daily we are also greeted with news of identity thefts and worse, wholesale data loss.  The Economist notes that Verizon recorded a loss of 285 million personal data records in 2008 alone.  That’s nearly one for every American citizen.  They state as well that there are 140 million emails per day, and that over 20,000,000 of them are scams designed to elicit passwords and bank details.  This is a good deal of very bad news, and at times has drawn suspicion upon individual companies and sometimes industries as a whole, but it has not resulted in wide-spread panic.  Estonia and Georgia suffered denial of service attacks in 2007 and 2008 that served to isolate them, but in terms of a long-term mistrust of the internet, they resulted in little more than some websites moving to American servers.  After September 11, we did not cease to fly, but the “barriers to entry” have increased: flying is simply not as easy and convenient as it once was.  This is a more likely scenario for our future use of other such infrastructure.

That is of course just a hypothesis.  Although seductive, one might even begin to question the idea of upheaval as a myth to explain complex gradual change after the fact.  To more fully understand it, we need to establish a better definition of “upheavals” — economic or otherwise: under what conditions they can be said to exist and what triggers them.  Research would focus on a historical summary of similar situations, and the current thought on the subject in relevant fields, academic and otherwise.  With an adequate definition in hand, they can be quantified in number and intensity: is there a trend, are they increasing or decreasing, what are the primary contributing or diminishing factors, and how will this affect our opportunities and quality of life?

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