Cybersecurity As A War Against Haunted Objects

We've already covered the insane case of a Chinese restaurant menu that served as a successful point of infiltration for hackers to access the private computers of an unnamed oil company, so I won't go into much more detail. However, there was a brief moment in the original New York Times story that deserves a quick shoutout here.

Haunted Objects

A security expert interviewed by the newspaper—and I should mention, for any other Joseph Conrad fans out there, that he is named Kurtz, of all things—quips that hackers are effectively hiding in plain sight by utilizing technical systems so mundane they are all but unworthy of security assessment. These include air conditioners, vending machines, and printers, not to mention the Chinese-made routers that former White House counter-terrorism advisor Richard A. Clarke was so keen to discuss in his recent book Cyber War.

As the Times explains, these "seemingly innocuous devices—videoconference equipment, thermostats, vending machines and printers—often are delivered with the security settings switched off by default. Once hackers have found a way in, the devices offer them a place to hide in plain sight."

Indeed, it is truly absurd to think that hackers might someday gain access to a hydroelectric dam or nuclear power plant, for example, or even to a city's traffic coordination grid, by slipping in through an insecure Coke machine.

As this expert—our modern-day Kurtz—suggests, "The beauty is no one is looking there. So it's very easy for the adversary to hide in these places." As stupid as this will sound, it's his use of the word adversary that seemed worth highlighting. Why on earth would I write an entire post about this? Well, it's Sunday; so far, at least, it's a slow news day. But it's also because I'm fascinated by the fact that the adversary happens to be the Hebraic description of Satan, aka God's "superhuman adversary." It is literally one of the meanings of Satan's name.

I want to emphasize right away that my interest in this is not actually religious—I am in no way suggesting that hackers are some sort of Biblical threat or that they're in league with the non-existent bogeyman of Christianity—but I am nonetheless always intrigued when potentially religious metaphors creep out into other, theoretically secular aspects of civilian life.

Like Freudian slips, these little moments of shared imagery and vocabulary reveal theological biases or even popular superstitions in the midst of everyday life, and they're worth noting.

Possessed Networks and Cybernetic Exorcism

In the specific case of the New York Times article, we see a security expert alarmed by and on constant lookout for some faceless "adversary" that has taken up root in the vulnerable objects of everyday life, those systems too weak to resist the intrusive temptations of a dark force, this haunting and uninvited guest from elsewhere. In response, our expert relies on elaborate coding and debugging practices, like a medieval rite of exorcism, in order to rid these objects of the adversary that now possesses them.

Cybersecurity As A War Against Haunted Objects

The IT guy is here to see you; from The Exorcist, courtesy Warner Bros.

My point is thus quite basic and probably didn't deserve a post this long, but it's that the war against hackers—that is, the war for securing our networked objects against outside threats—takes on an air of almost Catholic exorcism. It is a fear of cursed objects, each of which potentially hides a malevolent force, and a paranoia about who—what dark influence at the edge of the world—is trying to trick its way past our most persistent outer guards in order to exert control over insufficiently protected systems or things and wield them as weapons against us.

Phrased only slightly differently, in other words, it's as if descriptions of cybersecurity bleed indistinguishably into the vocabulary of religion, a quasi-medieval struggle against supernatural forces attempting to invade the world through vulnerable pores and blind spots. Like living in a remote village, where every superstitious object and daily practice is a potential window through which malignant energies might slip in and assume control, cybersecurity now has to contend with an explosion of possible entry points for wrongdoers to do us harm.

Every printer, every vending machine, every air-conditioning unit: it's like The Sorceror's Apprentice gone horribly wrong, a black magic of the everyday lurking just out of view beneath our world's smooth and modern exteriors.

The security's expert's use of the word "adversary" in the New York Times article was just one tiny example of where these vocabularies and attitudes overlap. [Gizmodo, New York Times]

Lead image from Gustave Doré's illustrations for Paradise Lost, via Wikimedia