The Terrorist Threat We’re Ignoring

Posted on Jul 21, 2011

By David Sirota

According to the U.S. government, the list of known bogeymen working to
compromise American national security is long, and getting longer by the day. By
my back-of-the-envelope count, we have shoe bombers, underwear bombers, dirty
bombers and car bombers. Now, we are being told to fear “implant bombers” who
will surgically attach explosives to their innards.

All of these threats are indeed scary. But the fear of individual attacks has
diverted attention from a more systemic threat of terrorists or foreign
governments exploiting our economy’s penchant for job-offshoring. How? By using
our corresponding reliance on imports to stitch security-compromising technology
into our society’s central IT nervous system.

Sounds far-fetched, right? That’s what I thought, until I read a recent
article in Fast Company. Covering a little-noticed congressional hearing, the
magazine reported that a top Department of Homeland Security official “admitted
on the record that electronics sold in the U.S. are being preloaded with
spyware, malware, and security-compromising components.”

The process through which this happens is straightforward—and its connection
to our current trade policies is obvious. First, an American company or
governmental agency orders computer hardware or software from a tech company.
Then, because the “free” trade era has incentivized that company to move its
production facilities to low-wage countries, much of that order is actually
fulfilled at foreign factories where security standards may be lacking.

If this still sounds far-fetched, remember that in the offshoring age, one of
the major high-tech exporters is China. That is, the country which has been
turning computers into stealth weapons of the police state (for proof, Google
the terms “Great Firewall” or “Green Dam”).

Sadly, this threat is about way more than new glitches in Angry Birds. At a
time when missiles are remotely fired via keystrokes, supply-chain
vulnerabilities in high-tech products are a genuine security problem.

What might those vulnerabilities mean in practice? As the U.S.-China Economic
and Security Review Commission reported, they could mean “kill switches”
secretly implanted in Pentagon systems that control our arsenal. Or they could
mean new backdoors that allow Chinese military hackers to again breach Defense
Department computer networks, as they did in 2007.

The possibilities are, unfortunately, endless. And yet this threat has been
largely ignored for two reasons.

First, the threat is invisible, and therefore doesn’t make for good
television. Instead, much of the media promotes stories involving sensational
images of naked-body scanners and ignores less telegenic monsters lurking within
circuits, algorithms and code.

Second, an examination of supply chain vulnerabilities would force us to
question free-trade theologies that powerful interests don’t want challenged.

For decades, trade-related reporting has mostly focused on jobs. Left almost
completely unmentioned are other concerns that free-trade critics have
raised—concerns about the environment, human rights and, yes, national security.

The media and political Establishment avoid discussing these issues not
because they are insignificant, but because the corporations that own the media
and buy the politicians also profit off a regulation- and tariff-free trade
policy that helps companies cut costs by moving production to low-wage
countries. Not surprisingly, then, a discussion of the downsides of those trade
policies has become a victim of a form of self-censorship that presents free
trade as an exclusively economic (and positive) policy.

Appreciating the power of that self-censorship is simply to behold the
reticence surrounding the supply chain problem. In a money-dominated media and
political system that otherwise loves a good scare, the silence suggests that
free-trade orthodoxy trumps all—even major national security threats.

About MZR

I am a middle aged man trying to be the best person I can become, make a positive difference in our world, while trying to make sense of my life's journey.
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