Newspapers and blogs around the globe have been carrying an amazing story of technological arrogance and organizational ineptitude regarding security of a key data feed from US intelligence systems. We read headlines like: “Iraq Insurgents Hack US Drones” (WSJ), “Hacked Drones: How Secure Are US Spy Planes?(ABC)”, “Insurgents Hack Into US Spy Drone Videos”(AP), “Officers Warned of Drones Flaw in 04 (WSJ).” As worrisome as those articles are, perhaps the more scary one was titled “Adm. Mullen says hacked drones caused no damage” (AP). That article indicates he cares about cybersecurity, but he seems to be taking this all rather nonchalantly. If he is leaping to the conclusion that everything is ok without a real assessment then that is cause for us all to be concerned. And it sends a horrible message to his enterprise. It is like saying “well, try not to screw up, but don’t worry, there is no way our technologically superior force can be defeated, and I don’t understand how this stuff works so the bad guys certainly can’t.”
Reminds me, sadly, of an incredible story by Arthur C. Clarke titled “Superiority” (available in the collection: The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke). This short story, written in 1951, is such a great read because it captures some key, apparently enduring qualities of militaries that become seduced by their technological superiority. The result: Even though the story was written almost six decades ago Clarke gave us all a lens perfect for the viewing of technological arrogance. And he gave us warnings that apply across the full spectrum of technologies, not just UAVs.
From the book:
“The situation was now both serious and infuriating. With stubborn conservatism and complete lack of imagination the enemy continued to advance with his old-fashioned and inefficient but now vastly more numerous ships.”
More on the story:
- The setting is a SciFi future, where battles occur in space. But the human drama was actually based on Clarke’s observations of Allied victory in Europe in WWII.
- In the story, A losing Admiral has a request of his captors. He hopes to clear up the record on a few things, and especially wants to be sure he is not forced to share a cell with the CTO-type person who got them into the mess he is in (Professor Norden, Chief of the Research Staff) .
- Failures were not due to lack of bravery or the fault of operational decisions. Failure was due to the inferior science of the enemy. Clarke reveals how in a way that is laughable but also causes anyone with military service pause (I believe most veterans have seen situations that the story will remind them of).
My big hope in sharing this is to get you to read this short story and think about it in a context of today’s military. The lessons from this story are the same lessons which should be learned from Thucydides and Sun Tzu and countless others. These are the same lessons that should have been learned when the entire national security apparatus underestimated the enemy in Vietnam. The lessons are, unfortunately, learned again and again. Look for these lessons in every US military battle lost, and look for them in the movies and books that come out of the battles (one very clear example of our arrogance at work and its cost in lives is “Black Hawk Down“). The big lesson, learned again and again: If you start relying too heavily on your technology and allow arrogance to set in, you open yourself up to defeat by a technologically inferior force.
Some of the worst problems arise when leaders start to think their technology is so superior it can have no flaws. When you start assuming you are superior to a thinking, creative adversary it is time to question your assumptions (before it is too late).
And, another point that should not be a shock to anyone in uniform or out: The bad guys want to steal our secrets, and we should want to prevent them from doing so. It is hard to accomplish this goal, but one thing we should not be doing is making it easy for them to intercept our data in the clear.
More CTOvision reading:
- Hannibal: I will either find a way or make one
- The American Way of War Is Based On Tech: Don’t Let It Be Our Downfall!
- Lessons of Science Fiction Computer Interfaces
- Sun Tzu: To know your enemy, you must become your enemy.
- Why Should You Care Why AI Creates Jobs And New Work Opportunities
For more on these topics see the CTOvision Guide to National Security Technology and
- An OODAcast Conversation with Dr. David Bray of the Atlantic Council Geotech Center (Part One) - April 3, 2020
- OODAcast– A Conversation with Dan Gerstein - April 1, 2020
- Update on The End Coronavirus Project and Need for Volunteers - March 28, 2020