It is sad that sometimes an important story is lost in the media focus on something peripheral to it.
A case in point would be the “Tebowmania” that accompanied the feats of (now former) Denver Bronco’s on-field achievements last fall. So you get stories focusing on Tebow’s theology instead of his quarterbacking.
That’s a harmless example, but it’s easy to find others that are more significant and disturbing. A current example is the story of mass murderer Joseph Kony in Uganda and surrounding East African countries.
A history of violence
Various reliable sources have shown that, over the years, Kony and his officers have ordered the abduction of children to become child sex slaves and soldiers. An estimated 66,000 children became soldiers and two million people have been internally displaced since 1986.
In 2005, Kony was indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court in the Hague, Netherlands, but has evaded capture.His so-called Lord’s Resistance Army operates in Uganda, the Congo, Sudan, and other nearby areas in East Africa.
Like other international stories of genocide (Rwanda and the 800,000 deaths there in the early 1990s, for example) the atrocities of Joseph Kony have gone largely unnoticed by Americans until a group called Invisible Children decided to put his misdeeds on our radar screen.
The organization has done this in a number of ways over the past few years, but none has been as resoundingly effective as the Kony 2012 documentary that was hoisted onto Youtube a couple weeks ago and – to date – has been seen by about 85 million people.
Most of these viewers never even knew these atrocities had been occurring in Uganda for years.
The stated purpose of Kony 2012 is to bring worldwide attention to Kony – in fact to make him a household name. The goal here is obviously not to make us love him but to feel such revulsion for him that the efforts to find him and bring him to justice will succeed this year.
With the court of public opinion weighing so heavily on those who have the power to conduct that search and capture Kony, the idea is these power brokers will have to listen to the millions calling for Kony’s arrest.
Certainly the story of how the social media is being used to disseminate this message is fascinating. It provides a groundbreaking example of the pro-social value of social media outlets like Youtube and Facebook. It also shows that, while traditional media may have done stories in the past about Kony, a single Youtube video has been more effective in spreading the story than all of those network news reports and newspaper stories put together.
Therein lies the rub, however: the makers of the Kony 2012 video were so successful in reaching so many people in such a short period of time, that the focus of stories about the Kony video now is that phenomenon itself … and not Joesph Kony.
Last week, after the Kony video hit 40 million viewers, each of the networks did stories that night, and the focus of each was on the viral success of the video. Not Kony’s atrocities.
A day after the viral focus wore off, the focus turned to allegations that Invisible Children was not passing through its donations to the victims of Kony.
The problem with this focus and these allegations, of course, is that Invisible Children’s goal is to bring attention to the genocide and not to provide funding for the victims. In this regard, they are a different kind of relief agency.
Again, their goal is to bring the issue of kidnapped and murdered children to the attention of the world. And that kind of publicity costs money, which is where many of the donations go.
The next day, the focus of the story turned to something else – something more titillating and – again – off the focus of Kony. This time the focus of the media was on amateur video showing the Jason Russell, filmmaker of Kony 2012, behaving erratically in the nude on a San Diego neighborhood street.
He was taken to a hospital and was later diagnosed with a condition known as brief reactive psychosis.
“Though this is new to us, the doctors say this is a common experience given the great mental, emotional and physical shock his body has gone through in these last two weeks,” his wife Danica Russell told reporters.
Brief reactive psychosis is a condition caused by extreme stress, something which fits Russell’s experience. He will remain in the hospital for several weeks and undergo treatment for it.
3 chances, 3 misses
So, we’ve had three rounds of high-profile stories over the past two weeks on the efforts of the Invisible Children organization, but none of them has had to do with Joseph Kony, his atrocities in East Africa, or the need to find him and arrest him.
Am I missing something here?
Recently the U.S. Secretary of Defense made an ominous prediction: “There is a strong likelihood that the next Pearl Harbor that we confront could very well be a cyberattack.”
Leon Panetta was not alone in his assessment of threats to the United States.
FBI Director Robert Mueller has said, “I do believe that the cyberthreat will equal or surpass the threat from counterterrorism in the foreseeable future.”
A ticking clock
And Mike Rogers, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee in the House of Representatives has warned, “We will suffer a catastrophic cyberattack. The clock is ticking.”
Cyberterrorism is not a new concept, but it is not one widely discussed, understood, or even feared by most Americans. We seem much more concerned – justifiably so – about another massive physical attack like 9/11.
The weapon exists
What’s even more worrisome, is that the virus that could wreak such havoc has already been developed, tried and found successful in another part of the world. Worse yet, that malware can be copied by others, may have already been done so, and could be repurposed and used for just a couple million dollars.
That cost is obviously not a factor by a large terrorist group or a failed country’s regime wanting to exact revenge on America.
The latest and most sophisticated “worm” or malware is called Stuxnet and was discovered accidentally in 2010 as it was attacking the controlling computer in Iran’s nuclear uranium enrichment facility.
That attack had been underway for a year before discovery and had rendered thousands of the plant’s centrifuges – devices used to enrich uranium – useless. Estimates are that Iran’s nuclear production process was set back several years as a result.
A new era
Retired Gen. Mike Hayden told reporter Steve Kroft on 60 Minutes, “We have entered into a new phase of conflict in which we use a cyberweapon to create physical destruction and, in this case, physical destruction in someone else’s critical infrastructure.” That infrastructure could be nuclear plants, massive electrical power grids, water treatment plants, air traffic control facilities, and so on.
As former director of both the CIA and national security, Hayden should know what he’s talking about. He left the CIA in 2009 and refused to speculate to Kroft on any possible CIA involvement.
Although no one has taken responsibility for developing Stuxnet, the only two countries with the capability and motives for damaging Iran’s nuclear efforts in this way seem to be the United States and Israel.
Not surprisingly, neither country’s intelligence agencies are taking responsibility for it.
Stuxnet is unlike the millions of other computer viruses in existence. It is not designed to steal passwords or individual identities, and it isn’t out to unleash its attack on all the computers it infects. Instead, it was designed to target and infect one particular computer and to perform a specific task in that computer.
The computer is the main one at Iran’s Natanz nuclear enrichment plant, and the task was to cause the plant’s centrifuges to spin much faster than they were designed to do, destroying them in the process. If left unchecked, Stuxnet could totally halt the plant’s ability to enrich uranium.
According to Wired Magazine, Stuxnet uses a rare “zero-day” exploit to spread the virus in a computer.
“Zero-days are the hacking world’s most potent weapons: they exploit vulnerabilities in software that are yet unknown to the software maker or antivirus vendors,” writes Kim Zetter. “They’re also exceedingly rare: it takes considerable skill and persistence to find such vulnerabilities and exploit them. Out of more than 12 million pieces of malware that antivirus researchers discover each year, fewer than a dozen use a zero-day exploit.”
Another difference between Stuxnet and other computer worms is that this one masked the fact that it even existed. Generally, when a virus attacks a computer, the user is the first to realize it. Not so with Stuxnet. It is left free to do its damage without being readily detected.
In the case of Stuxnet, it was doing its work in the Natanz computer for a year before a computer security firm in Belarus discovered it. By then, thousands of the nuclear enrichment plant’s centrifuges had been destroyed and needed to be replaced.
If all the concern over Stuxnet were related to its ability to halt Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, few in the world would be concerned at all. It would be hard to find any Americans, in fact, who wouldn’t cheer its development.
A reusable weapon
The problem is that a cyberweapon – in this case the Stuxnet malware – doesn’t destroy itself when it is used in the way a missile, bomb, or rocket would. A cyberweapon does its damage and continues to live on.
That means the weapon is still available for use by anyone who can access it.
“There are those out there who can take a look at this, study it and maybe even attempt to turn it to their own purposes,” Gen. Hayden said.
The phrase, “unintended consequences” was used more than once by the sources. In short, it could be used against the United States.
A genie named Pandora
So the genie appears to have escaped the bottle, although repurposing and using it would require a lot of intelligence and a lot of work.
Ralph Langner, a German industrial security expert, said, “You don’t need many billions; you just need a couple of millions. And this would buy you a decent cyberattack, for example, against the U.S. power grid. (And you can access it) on the Internet.
Pesky thing, that Pandora’s Box.