Are archaic computer systems going to be a problem in the future?

Technology can and has been problematic. Sometimes the issues that arise from it’s use are predictable and sometimes they are not. In the run up to the new millennium in 1999, hospital staff were issued headlamps and many major hospital were hooked up to generators. These was a genuine and widespread fear that many critical systems, such as power grid regulation and traffic lights, would fail.


Luckily, they didn’t. That said, when the Tsunami knocked out Fukushima’s cooling systems, the failsafes failed because of a power surge. This is all by way of saying that computer systems failing can have catastrophic effects. This isn’t necessarily new information.


However, a lesser known fact is that modern civilisations depend heavily on (technologically speaking) ancient technology. The US Nuclear missile system runs off floppy disks. CCTV evidence for death row trials is stored on VHS. The court system in this country is heavily reliant on faxing, as is child protection. Most of the navigation equipment on commercial airliners predates many of our writers.


The NHS is still dependent on physical written notes that have to be retrieved from storage for many patients. These technologies are in use for a number of reasons. In the case of the US Nuclear missile system, the thinking is supposedly that by having a floppy disk based launch protocol running on a disconnected network prevents cyber attack.


A closer look


There is some question as to whether or not our reliance on antiquated technologies is an issue. For consumer technology, the answer is almost certainly that it is not. Because of the way product cycles work, even those who wouldn’t consider themselves particularly technologically savvy tend to own products that are reasonably modern. In other words, in the Western world, many technophobes still have smartphones. Given the relative rapidity with which most people update their products, this is simply a nonissue for consumer tech.


Industrial and government systems are a different story. The IT systems that governments and government departments run on are notoriously backward and the same can be said for large industry.


The issues that could arise can easily be divided into two subcategories. Vulnerability to attack and potential failure. Both have precedent. STUXNET was an Israeli orchestrated cyber attack on the IT systems that operated the Plutonium centrifuges for Iran’s nuclear programs. The attack was phenomenally successful, not because of the complexity of the attack but because of the simplicity of the nineties era IT system that controlled the centrifuge. In terms of failure, there’s countless individual incidences.


Good or bad?


But what about the real disaster scenario. For a moment, consider the potential for cataclysmic apocalypse as a result of a tech failure. Let’s for a moment indulge the idea. A power grid, perhaps one controlled by software dating back to the Soviet era, is attacked by a relatively unsophisticated virus. But it successfully takes control of the grid. Instantaneously, you have the power to raze whole cities.


You can cut out power all together to hospitals and telephone control stations. Or you can cause power surges and set fires across the entire city. With no phone or internet, no functioning hospitals, no streetlights and blazes across a metropolis of your choosing. It’s never happened yet. But the technology has also never been so vulnerable.


I rate the possibility of the nightmare scenario as low. It would require a coordinated attack the like of which has never before been seen. I think, in summation, that consumer technology is safe. But I think there are gaping wholes in our national security because of our old IT systems that need resolving, otherwise we endanger ourselves.


What do you think? Have your say in the comments section below.