Saturday, August 18, 2007

Skype and the vulnerability of technology

Technology can be impressive as anybody exploring a new gadget has found, and recent years have seen a revolution in technological advances from the mobile phone to GPS satellite navigation, from the personal computer to the ease of the internet. Technology makes us feel in control. However, it also provides a false sense of security.

One of the most useful and impressive items of technology is VOIP, the ability to route voice calls through the internet and communicate across the world at low cost or for free. A leading pioneer of this wonder of modern communication has been Skype which from its early beginnings as a chatting tool soon became a major means of cooperation even for serious business. The developers of Skype were so successful that ebay eventually bought them out. It came as a major shock, therefore, that the technology, which had been so reliable that it bypassed most obstacles thrown in its way by jealous fixed line telephony operators, suddenly was down for more than a day. Allegedly, software problems were to blame, so the company, but this sounds a little disingenuous since the software had not suddenly changed from one day to the other. More likely, problems developed with the network infrastructure and how messages were relayed across several computers without being actually stored permanently on any of them.

Any system can, and probably will, fail at some time, but the Skype outage has demonstrated our over-reliance on convenient technology thought to be failsafe. When and old-style mechanical car broke down, it could usually be fixed on the road side; if the electronic engine controls of modern cars play up, on the other hand, it signals the end of the journey with the car having to be relayed to a workshop for module replacements. Road users increasingly rely on GPS satellite navigation, as do aircraft, the latter often having backup systems should the primary unit pack up. However, GPS signals can be jammed or interfered with, rendering the accuracy of a few meters suddenly quite useless. The cause can be solar flares, but equally intentional attacks, which is why China's demonstrated ability to knock out a satellite caused so much stir in the United States. Without satellite guidance the US military is as impotent as its president sitting in his Oval Office. That's what star wars is all about.

Heavy reliance on sophisticated technology has made the leading nations of the world powerful, but it has also made them more vulnerable than they would like to admit or even contemplate. A complete breakdown of the internet, for example, would make the recent stock market crash (the inevitable burst of the financial bubble of artificial money creation) look like a benign ripple, since it would stifle all economic activity across the developed world probably beyond repair. Whilst regional power cuts or computer network failures could be compensated for, a global downtime could well be the death knell for Western civilisation and its market economy. The survivors and winners would be those who still know how to deal with old-fashioned nuts and bolts.

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