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ABC needs to ask: why the mad rush to go online?

Tonight the ABC's Four Corners will report on what it considers to be very sensational disclosures: that various break-ins into digital systems of public and private entities were allegedly done by Chinese individuals.

There is nothing new about this. This claim is as old as the hills. What has apparently happened is that some government functionaries have decided that the time is right to leak and have done so. And the ABC, more driven by a desire to hike its viewing audience, has bitten. If the corporation can point to a larger share of the national audience, it will no doubt have less to do to retain its existing budget.

Tonight's programme will, undoubtedly, make everything appear dark and mysterious. There will be those green screens with ones and zeros travelling at a rate of knots. The more obfuscatory and unintelligible it is, the better. People always fear the unknown. The ABC is already hyping it up to the extent possible.

The fact is, everyone is hacking everyone else. The Americans have been spying on all and sundry for ages, with the NSA having had the active assistance of big technology companies like Microsoft, Apple, Google, Yahoo!, Cisco and Facebook. And despite a lot of noise, the spying continues unabated.

The Russians have been conducting cyber espionage for yonks. A Russian-sponsored hack recently put up NSA code exploits for sale – and Cisco had to rush out fixes for zero-day exploits that affect its firewalls. That's just the latest episode.

The Chinese have been stealing industrial secrets and breaking in wherever they can for a long, long time.

The Israelis have some of the best hackers in the trade, many of whom are in business, building software that can be used to break into systems. And the list goes on...


Perhaps the more pertinent question for Four Corners to have raised would be why, with all this feverish cyber activity going on, Australia still persists in the foolhardy mission of trying to put more and more of its citizens' data online.

Why is security always a secondary consideration to the profit motive? For example, why did the Australian Bureau of Statistic run an online census without even having basic protection against a distributed denial of service in place? IBM, which handled the census job, was offered this by its upstream provider NextGen Networks, but refused, because it would be cheaper.

Why is the Australian government intent on having all data accessible through a single sign-on and that too through a public cloud?

One could also ask why Four Corners allowed a man like Michael Hayden, a former head of both the CIA and NSA, to speak on the programme. Hayden is known to have lied to the US Congress about CIA operations. What are his statements really worth?

The other question that should be raised, especially after the revelations by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden in 2013, is why are so many systems online? A great many of them should be entirely offline; convenience is the enemy of security.

But commonsense is the enemy of governments that want to profit from scaring the man on the street. In that, the ABC, willingly or perhaps in ignorance, provides assistance. When you are not spending your own money, you do tend to take less care.


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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.