Lecture warns of technology’s risks

Jerret Raffety

Hermann Maurer, dean of the faculty of computer science at Graz University of Technology in Austria, summed up his message Tuesday with a joke:

One day, planet Earth is having a conversation with its neighbor, Mars.

“Mars, I’m in so much pain,” Earth says. “All of the war and pollution that humanity is committing on my surface is destroying me.”

“Don’t worry,” Mars answers. “That infection will clear itself up eventually.”

Maurer, an author of fiction books, spoke to an audience of students, staff and faculty members at Coffman Union about global safety and computers.

The possibility of computers and their networks failing poses a strong risk to society, Maurer said. The real danger is from a targeted attack, he said.

“It’s a miracle that no serious case of cyber attack has occurred yet,” Maurer said.

The further technology advances, the more serious the threat becomes, he said.

For example, if all computers failed globally today, there are some that would be unaffected. However, if the same happened in 2080, Maurer projects, everyone would suffer.

Cyberterrorism is on the rise as well, Maurer said. In 1995, Maurer said, there were 52 reported cases of computer-virus attacks. In 2003, the number of attacks reached 137,729, he said.

This fact alone does not suggest a concentrated effort from any one enemy, Maurer said. Instead, it suggests that numerous people are capable of staging an attack, he said.

A possible precaution would be to decrease globalization, Maurer said. Populations would be less vulnerable in the event of a computer or communications system failure if they had resources for survival available locally.

Globalization might be necessary in some places, but regionalization is preferable wherever reasonable, Maurer said.

Reducing global terrorism is also at the heart of preventing attacks on computers and their networks, Maurer said.

“Reducing terrorism isn’t about how many people you kill,” he said.

Instead, a more even distribution of resources would help curb terrorism, he said.

“We have to work on our social balance,” Maurer said.

Maurer also suggested several methods and technologies for protecting computers and networks from attacks by hackers.

The University’s Technology Center sponsored Maurer’s appearance, said Andrew Odlyzko, the center’s director.

“It’s very important to have someone as knowledgeable, articulate, and involved in the relationship of society and technology to stimulate thinking amongst the University population,” Odlyzko said.