Black Smoke and Storm Clouds

Every weekday morning, in every street in Port Vila, we see a steady stream of people walking into town. On the road beside them, innumerable buses and cars drive by, belching black smoke into their faces. Just as regularly, we see complaints in the local media about this smoke. But nothing ever gets done about it.

Police and inspection officials don’t enforce the laws, and the drivers don’t make any real effort to clean up their act. Everybody knows they should. Everybody knows that this pollution causes health problems. Even the simplest metrics, like the dirt it leaves on our clothing, on our skin and under our nails, makes it impossible to deny that there’s a problem. And yet we do nothing.

Why? The answer is simple….

The driver doesn’t breathe his own black smoke. He doesn’t even see it. It’s behind him all the time. When he breathes black smoke from the truck in front of him, well, it’s not his black smoke. It’s someone else’s. Therefore it’s not his problem. Sure, a tune-up could make the bus run better, but the bus is running now, and tune-ups cost money.

Looking at it from a distance, the whole situation seems silly, but it’s common human behaviour to ignore bad things if they don’t have an immediate negative effect on the people doing them. It’s one of the reasons smoking and alcohol abuse persist – people don’t see the damage until it’s too late.

But what does any of this have to do with computers and IT? Just this: Our computers are belching a constant stream of ‘black smoke’. Odds are very good that your computer is guilty of it, too. It’s harming us and harming people elsewhere in the world. And we’re hardly doing a thing to stop it.

For most people, viruses are simply a fact of life. In the same way we assume that every sniffle or cough is an unavoidable part of everyday life in Vanuatu, we assume that our computers start out shiny, speedy and new, and then they gradually become sickly and slow. We accept it as inevitable when our email accounts eventually become so clogged with spam that they’re unusable.

These chronic infections have serious consequences. The fact that people’s computers run more slowly, or that the Internet connection gets clogged – these are just side-effects of something far more insidious. Trojans, spyware, viruses – call them what you like – they are all designed to steal your money.

Okay, maybe not your money in particular. At least, not yet. The vast majority of computer users in Vanuatu don’t use the Internet to buy and sell things. Few even use online banking services. Even if they wanted to, they couldn’t give their money to the criminals who write this rubbish software. But that’s going to change. It won’t be long before we start performing transactions over the Internet, and when we do, the risk to us will, relatively speaking, be greater than the average person in the developed world.

The loss of a hundred dollars from a bogus transaction is fairly easily written off by the average Sydney dweller. Even losing the entire contents of their bank account is not necessarily disastrous. Currently, those ni-Vanuatu who are online on a regular basis represent the most privileged elements of Vanuatu society. But even they can suffer when their income or resources drop by the smallest amount. The prospect of financial loss for someone operating a micro-business in the outer islands is much, much worse.

Just like the Monday morning bus-driver driving by, oblivious to the gouts of smoke pouring into his neighbours’ faces, we allow our computers to pollute the common space, making things more difficult and dangerous for everyone. Even when we see the effect that this software has, we don’t recognise it as our problem.

Most of us don’t see the problem at all. We assume that computer viruses are inevitable. We assume that Internet service is unreliable and slow, and put all the blame on TVL, our favourite whipping boy. We just assume that computers need to be wiped down and re-initialised from time to time. We accept anti-virus and anti-spyware software slowing down our computers and complicating our lives as a fact of life. We don’t recognise the black smoke even though we’re surrounded by a cloud of it.

Here’s a well-kept secret: None of this is necessary. Viruses are not inevitable. Computers don’t slow down on their own. Relying on anti-virus software is like taking antibiotics every day instead of cleaning our food. Internet service here in Vanuatu would be vastly better if we made even a nominal effort to limit the garbage we spew over the wire.

In the past, rubbish software was more a nuisance than anything else: A few hours downtime, a computer with ugly, embarrassing porn pop-ups, email inboxes chock-a-block with viagra ads and the like. But the stakes are starting to get serious now.

The problem is that online crime is remarkably profitable. Global income from illegal online activities is estimated to be in the billions of US dollars now. Some have even speculated that it’s comparable to money earned through the international drug trade. While this is probably an exaggeration, it underlines an important point: More and more often these days, the people who stuff our emails full of ads for pills are the same ones who sell heroin, supply the sex trade and profit immensely from it all.

Online crime is very attractive to criminal enterprises like the Chinese triads and the Russian Mafia. It’s much safer, requires less effort, and they make more money for dollar invested than they do in just about any other activity. Why run the risk of being arrested at a border crossing with drugs when you could stay at home hacking credit cards or just fooling innocent people into sending you the money themselves? Even if you do get arrested, it’s only ‘white collar’ crime. The absolute worst that happens is you get a slap on the wrist. Cyber-crime has really got their attention, and they’re beginning to invest.

One particular group in Russia has gained control over a network of infected computers that numbers somewhere between about 2 and 10 million individual PCs, according to recent estimates. Known as the Storm bot-net, this vast army is coordinated through a remarkably sophisticated command-and-control system that allows the controller to send massive amounts of spam. Recently, researchers have spotted the Storm net being used for other purposes. It was used to take the entire Estonian Internet service down for days. It’s also being used to crack valuable passwords. This development really worries people because Storm’s masters control more raw processing power than any known super-computer in the world.

These are our PCs. We are helping others steal money and ruin what would otherwise be a much nicer Internet. This is our black smoke. Until we learn to recognise it and accept responsibility, we will be continue to be engulfed by it. Rest assured that unless we do something it will get worse before it gets better.