The original 1975 BBC version of Terry Nation’s ‘Survivors’ dealt with the aftermath of an unnamed virus that swept across the civilised world and severely depleted the human population of the planet. The focus in the programme was, unsurprisingly, on England as we followed several disparate characters coming together to form a pre-Industrial community amidst the ruins. In the memorable opening episode, much is made of mankind’s risky dependency on modern technology, though this dependency is minimal in comparison to the dependency on today’s version; the kind of virus required to bugger everything up for the human race in 2017 doesn’t even need to be an organic one.
There’s a plethora of old sayings that could be evoked when reading of belated responses to the viral pandemic that infected 200,000 computers in 150 countries last week and rendered info inaccessible unless submitting to a ransom demand – despite warnings issued months ago that went unheeded. I’m thinking stuff about locking the stable door after the horse has bolted and so on. But I think the one concerning all the eggs being contained in a solitary basket seems most applicable. When every relevant document and file only exists in the cyber ether, without any other format serving as back-up in the likelihood of an online meltdown, the over-reliance on such a vulnerable storage system as digital technology is symptomatic of a mindset where the easiest option is taken when it’s not necessarily the safest.
This has certainly been a long time coming. What the NHS computers experienced here at the weekend was an A&E waiting to happen ever since the majority of paper documentation used by the sector was transferred to the PC. Most of us will probably remember attending our local GP’s surgeries for decades and seeing the shelves behind the reception desk crammed with cards in which each individual patient’s records were contained. Yes, they obviously took up a great deal of room, but with the exception of a fire breaking out, they were immune to the kind of damage their storage successor has proven susceptible to.
Some may recall news footage of the ‘Ripper department’ of the West Yorkshire Police Force in Leeds during the time Peter Sutcliffe was on the loose; the floor housing the collected material on the potential suspects became so weighed down with the crates stuffed full of paper information that it had to be reinforced to cope with the structural strain. Today, all of that info could, of course, be stored on one memory stick so small that a toddler could swallow it; but who’s to say some mischievous hacker wouldn’t tap into it and essentially be a cyber incarnation of notorious hoaxer ‘Wearside Jack’ in the process?
Few people today – certainly those whose only experience of a phone means a mobile rather than a landline – could recite the telephone numbers of their nearest and dearest because they’ve never had to dial them; add the numbers to the mobile’s memory banks upon purchasing it and they’re all stored away without the need to memorise them; a solitary button is pressed to access the desired number. All very convenient, but what happens if something goes wrong with the phone and the list is lost? Suddenly, the user is made aware he or she has no idea what any of the numbers they call the most actually are. Chances are they never thought to jot these numbers down in an extremely old-fashioned object known as an address book.
The digital network that is the repository for so many of the files that western civilisation deems necessary to keep the wheels of society turning has the potential to be a modern-day clerical equivalent of the Library of Alexandria. The destruction of Ancient Egypt’s most celebrated temple of collected knowledge via fire (whether deliberate or accidental) resulted in the loss of thousands of exclusive scrolls and volumes that were irretrievable on account of Alexandria being their sole home. Its vulnerability to attack was evident, just as IT systems are today. Cyber criminals – hackers and virus-producers alike – are engaged in a permanent battle with the traffic cops of the information superhighway, and the ramifications of these battles can be found in the disruption across doctors’ surgeries and hospitals this week as dependence on the systems they target has left the digitised structure of the sector in sore need of repair.
The Government insists the NHS received fair warning about the threat to its IT soft-wear, passing the buck to the NHS Trusts, yet a contract to upgrade the NHS’s IT system wasn’t renewed two years ago in a wave of Government cuts. Only yesterday, the Department of Health’s National Data Guardian additionally criticised the NHS for a deal it cut with the Google ‘patient app’ DeepMind, which enables the NHS to share 1.6 million patient records with third parties for direct patient care – a deal cut without the consent of patients. In response, Google said ‘The data used to provide the app has been strictly controlled by the Royal Free Hospital and has never been used for commercial purposes or combined with Google services, products or ads’, but after events over the weekend, one cannot help being sceptical.
Apparently, this particular cyber attack emanated from flaws in Windows identified by the US National Security Agency, a discovery it would seem the NSA failed to disclose to Microsoft before it fell into the hands of hackers. However, despite Microsoft making a free ‘fix’ available two months ago, the sloth-like response to upgrading IT security by many institutions meant the systems earmarked as open goals were attacked.
Whoever is ultimately at fault for this incident, the fact remains that it’s something that will never go away; like the painting of the Forth Bridge, upgrading security and antivirus soft-wear is a permanent exercise. If industry and individuals insist on hoarding their most valuable data on a solitary form of preservation, they’d best ensure it’s pretty secure. Pen and paper, anyone?
© The Editor