New technologies display vulnerabilities

ANN ARBOR, Mich. (U-WIRE) — The nation received two stunning reminders last week that the modern technology so many people depend on operates in a very fragile state. The marvelous new ways in which people communicate with each other in the 1990s have made people take things such as pagers and the Internet for granted. But as technology races along at an exponential rate, the security for such developments lags behind. Those who use and develop new technology must also take steps to ensure that new conveniences remain reliable and secure.
The most noticeable upset last week occurred when the Galaxy 4 satellite spun out of its orbit, leaving countless pagers out of order. For the better part of a day, the majority of the country’s pager users lost their ability to stay in constant communication. Many professionals scrambled to set up other means of being reached. Perhaps most scary of all, numerous doctors and EMS personnel lost a tool they depend on for quick responses to emergencies. While they made other arrangements — some doctors simply remained at the hospital — the results could have been tragic.
The other shot to the nation’s confidence came in the form of a think tank of hackers that testified before Congress on the vulnerability of the government’s computer systems. The hackers made it clear that they could shut down the Internet in a short period of time, perhaps even a half hour. In addition, hackers may already possess the ability to breach such important areas as the Department of Defense and the Federal Reserve. There is no telling the amount of damage a misanthropic hacker could do with access to these sensitive areas.
As technological innovators continue to develop better mousetraps, society as a whole gains a false feeling of invulnerability. In the excitement of these new inventions, people forget about possible security issues.
Pagers are wonderful devices that allow people to respond quickly when an emergency arises, saving valuable time. But if the companies that provide subscribers with pager service are unable to immediately react when a satellite malfunctions, all that time and more is lost. Companies should look into ways that would allow them to quickly switch to another satellite in the event of a malfunction. Too many lives now rely on pagers for problems such as last week’s to occur.
Computers stand at the forefront of media. With the advent of the Internet, they are centers of information, commerce and communication. The Internet is fast becoming the equivalent of television in terms of its potential to revolutionize people’s lives. A crippled Internet would send thousands of businesses, researchers and students into a panic. Considering the possible vulnerability of the government’s computers, no end of technological warfare could ensue. The government has the ability to develop the most sophisticated security measures on earth and must move to erect proper defenses against those who would tamper with its information.
Many people put an unwarranted faith in the technology they use everyday. There is no question that the developments of the last 10 years continue to make lives easier, but the advances are not completely reliable yet. Users and developers must find ways to secure this delicate technology so that the trust people have in them is not betrayed.

This staff editorial originally appeared in Tuesday’s University of Michigan Daily.