RED LODGE—When George Washington led troops into battle during the Revolutionary War, he communicated with his men at the same speed Julius Caesar had sent dispatches 2,000 years earlier.
But within 100 years after the Revolutionary War, communications had developed rapidly with the invention of the railroad, telegraph, telephone and steamship. A hundred years after that, the Internet was in its infancy, heralding a new era in which global communications could occur almost instantly—and posing new risks to privacy and national security.
John DeBello, of Loma Media in San Diego, Calif., gave an overview of those risks at a meeting last week of the Red Lodge Forum for Provocative Issues. The forum was started in January 2011 by Richard Nolan, who moved to Red Lodge 13 years ago from Washington, D.C. With Red Lodge’s diverse population and broad range of expertise from all over the country, a monthly forum on timely issues seemed appealing, Nolan said before last week’s talk.
“It’s just another way to learn about something that’s interesting,” he said.
After starting with about 20 people for early forums, the group has expanded steadily. The forums draw a lot of political progressives, far fewer conservatives and very few young people, even on topics that directly concern them, such as Common Core standards, Nolan said.
The group meets monthly at Café Regis and typically draws about 60 people for dinner, a talk and questions afterward. One session with former U.S. Sen. Al Simpson drew about 150 people and had to be moved to a larger venue, Nolan said.
Programs are planned for the rest of the year. Nolan retired in 2010, and he said, “I need to use whatever time I’ve got carefully.”
The dining room at Café Regis was packed on Tuesday for beef stroganoff and for DeBello’s talk, and questions flowed freely afterward. Loma Media is a communications firm that provides public outreach for the Cyber Security Division of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate.
DeBello said he was once told by a U.S. admiral that the biggest problem the military had in World War II was getting information. Now the problem is how to deal with the huge overload of information.
The rapid expansion of computer technology has given new currency to some old cons, DeBello said. The Nigerian scam, in which emailers try to fool gullible souls into believing that that they can receive huge sums of money by paying a little, has its roots in the old Spanish prisoner confidence trick, which dates back to the 16th century, he said.
But the scam used to be laborious and time-consuming to pull off. The invention of email made it possible for scam artists sitting in cafes in Nigeria to send out hundreds of thousands of emails. Even though only a tiny percentage of contacts fall for the scam, that was enough to make the scam one of Nigeria’s leading industries by the 1980s, DeBello said.
By 2019, he said, the total cost of cybercrime is expected to hit $2 trillion.
“We are legitimately all at risk,” he said.
In the early days of the Internet, he said, nobody worried about security. Now security specialists struggle to keep up with the rapidly growing Internet.
“To this day we are still putting Band-Aids on a system that is unimaginably large,” he said.
He compared the battle between security experts and criminals to choosing up sides for a baseball team by putting one hand above the other on a baseball bat.
“It’s a constant battle between offense and defense,” he said.
Criminals operate at a global level, using normally inaccessible portions of the web known as the “dark Internet,” he said.
“We have to defend everything,” he said. “They only have to find one thing.”
But criminals may not be the worst threat. DeBello identified levels of security concerns, from hackers, whose intentions may or may not be evil; to criminals; to terrorism; to the nation state, where cyber attacks are increasingly becoming routine.
Thousands of cyber attacks are launched daily from China on the United States, DeBello said. The attackers may be attempting to discover military intelligence, or they may simply be looking for business and trade secrets.
The real danger, he said, could be when terrorists and nation states launch coordinated cyber attacks that could simultaneously take down a city’s power grid, traffic signals, the banking system and other computer-controlled elements of infrastructure.
ISIS, the terrorist group operating in Syria and Iraq, is often credited with sophisticated propaganda videos aimed at enticing foreigners to join their cause. But those videos are no more sophisticated than what American junior high school students could produce, he said. The real danger is that even just a handful of skilled and ideologically driven computer technicians could wreak havoc across the globe.
“Cyber security is a global sport,” DeBello said.
In response, the big five oil companies have joined with the Department of Homeland Security to create the LOGIIC program, which stands for Linking the Oil and Gas Industry to Improve Cybersecurity.
The Software Assurance Marketplace, or SWAMP, is a Homeland Security effort to find bugs in software used for such essential functions as finance and the power grid.
At a personal level, he said, most fraud is committed against young people, not seniors, as is often believed. Also vulnerable, and for the same reason, are educated males: both they and young people tend to believe they know too much to be caught by a scam, DeBello said.
He warned against opening attachments from unknown sources and to avoid downloading programs from little-known sites.
“Don’t open the door,” he said. “That’s the first step.”
Computer users also should use anti-virus programs to guard against widespread security bugs such as Heartbleed and Shellshock, and they can use anonymizer programs, which disguises the user’s Internet address.
“I just assume nothing is private,” he said.
But in response to a question, he indicated that concerns about the National Security Agency monitoring private communications are overblown. Except in exceptional cases, the attitude of NSA employees generally is, “I don’t have time to listen to a billion phone calls,” he said.
DeBello also said, in response to a question, that digital theft is a huge problem in the entertainment industry. That prompted Richard Nolan to point out that in an earlier career, DeBello directed the cult movie “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.”
Nolan also said that upcoming programs at the Forum for Provocative Issues include sessions on the book “Being Mortal”; on Islam and the West; on dementia; on saving Montana rivers; and on Operation Second Chance, an alternative to the Wounded Warrior Project, which recently fired its two top executives for excessive overhead in its programs.
The group meets for dinner at 5:30 p.m., followed by the program, on the second Tuesday of each month at Café Regis, except during June, July and August.
For information on upcoming programs, email firstname.lastname@example.org or consult the Facebook page for Forum for Provocative Issues.