• July 19, 2024

Winged-horses of doom

They say when television was invented, many sales reps and marketing executives refused to take it seriously. Out of the 360 degrees surrounding you, why would anyone want to keep looking at a small corner of the room. But as it turned out, they couldn’t be more wrong. For generations TV screens enthralled, amused and entertained viewers. I recall a time before the age of smartphones when it felt almost impossible to distract my younger cousins as they watched cartoons on primitive television screens. Even if you planted yourself right between them and the screen, they would effortlessly find an angle to resume viewing.

Similarly, when computers arrived, it seemed less likely that they would engage the users for long, given that these desktops restricted your movements even further. But you know how easily they conquered the market.

And finally, mobile phones that have now transformed into these beautiful, smart devices in your hand. Indeed when they first arrived, they were so big and hideous that it felt like a chore to carry them around. When the novelty wore off, we often wondered why we were lugging around these brick-shaped and sized contraptions just to make occasional calls with bad signals. Initially, it felt the device would be vanquished by much smaller, if inefficient, pagers. But Moore’s law did its magic in the end, and mobile phones became what they are today. Our kids, to whom even Blackberries and early iPhones look like dinosaurs’ fossils, find it amusing when we show them and explain how these pagers and primitive phones worked.

But here is the rub. As the machines got smarter and connected to the internet, their vulnerabilities went through the roof. First, it was only about computer viruses. Then came cybercrime, mainly through hacking which since then has grown into an over 1 trillion dollar global industry. And finally, dark recesses of the internet, often dubbed the dark web. If you want to know how bizarre and grotesque this last part is, please read Eileen Ormsby’s Darkest Web: Drugs, Death and Destroyed Lives … the Inside Story of the Internet’s Evil Twin. From live torture and murder on demand, drug and sex trade to terrorism, you will encounter harrowing tales of inhuman crime. But then, even people like Ormsby find ways to justify its existence in the name of space for free speech and political dissent.

And in the end, came the no holds barred cyber warfare. In his book, Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War, Fred Kaplan does a marvellous job of tracing the evolution of this deadly world. While you learn about various stages of this evolution, one name would most certainly stand out — Stuxnet — the world’s first digital weapon deployed by President Obama against Iran’s nuclear programme. In fact, so unique is the use of the weapon that from David Sanger’s Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power to his The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage, and Fear in the Cyber Age, Kim Zetter’s Countdown to Zero Day: Stuxnet and the Launch of the World’s First Digital Weapon and even Ronen Bergman’s The Secret War with Iran, you find many retellings of the use of Stuxnet among other methods. When an approach succeeds, you find many people interested in showcasing it. Stuxnet was no exception.

In this volatile age where things as simple as social media, image boards and online gaming communities can be perverted and used for evil, the constant growth of cyber weapons poses a constant threat. Nothing underscored this dark reality more than the scandal about Pegasus, the NSO Group’s horrible spying tool that was recently unearthed. A team of dedicated professionals and journalists laid their hands on a leaked list of fifty thousand telephone numbers that had once remained targets of this most sought-after surveillance tool. Then they embarked on an excruciating journey to identify, locate and test those numbers for residual signs of infiltration. As the investigation grew, it surfaced that France’s President Macron, numerous other world leaders, political dissidents, human rights activists and even journalists were its targets.

When the news first broke, I discussed it in my piece “The myth of privacy”, dated July 30, 2021, at length in this space. To quickly recap its uses, let me tell you that initially, this software spread through phishing emails and text messages. Then it further evolved so that you did not need to click on any link to get infected. A text message involuntarily received was enough to infect your devices, especially your smartphone. Once on your phone, it can access all your files and provide remote access to your phone’s microphone, camera, GPS and other sensors, activating them at will. This way, your most loyal friend, your trusted companion that would accompany you during the most intimate and private moments, became a spy against you.

You may also recall how this software became a subject of huge political controversy in India, where it turned out that not only had the government purchased the software but used it to spy on its own citizens, including some leading politicians, dissidents, journalists and activists. The Indian Supreme Court looked helpless before the government’s refusal to cooperate in the investigation.

Now thanks to two leading lights of the international consortium of journalists investigating the abuse of this technology, we know what went down and how the investigation shaped up. Laurent Richard and Sandrine Rigaud’s book, Pegasus: How a Spy in Our Pocket Threatens the End of Privacy, Dignity, and Democracy, which came out this January, documents all these developments and is a page-turner. While it also contains a forward written by Rach Maddow, you have to read the book to know how truth can be stranger than fiction, and this unputdownable work is better than any spy thriller due to its vivid retelling of the suspense, drama and intrigue that unfolded during the months-long investigation.

Please bear in mind that all this happened in the pre-AI years. Now with the sudden arrival of AI and deep fakes, things will get far more complicated.

A question comes to my mind. While all of this is going on, instead of being on our guard both to protect ourselves and give the enemies a befitting response, what are we doing? When we rise above our petty internal fights, we might notice how the widening technology gap between us and other developing nations has boxed us into a hopeless situation.

Still, Eid Mubarak!

Published in The Express Tribune, April 22nd, 2023.

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