We are assured the nationwide Optus outage on Wednesday was not the result of a cyber attack.
Even so, it rekindled the memory of a privately run and unclassified war game I participated in several months ago. The hypothetical scenario was a cyber attack by an unnamed advanced power leading to prolonged and widespread failure of nationwide digital networks that generated, stored, processed and operationalised digital data. In other words, a scenario similar to what occurred on Wednesday with Optus but more menacing in intent, widespread in effect and lasting weeks rather than a day.
The technical and industry experts in the room gave detailed accounts of the paralysing impact on technologies we take for granted and rely on constantly – for example, all forms of electronic communication, payments systems, satellite navigation and traffic signals. An even worse scenario includes loss of power and devastating impacts on basic infrastructure and utilities such as the water system.
There were expert debates and disagreements on how quickly networks could be restored and whether it was possible to effectively repel constant attacks by the unnamed enemy. The more military-minded also reminded the participants that cyber was now recognised as the fifth domain of warfare and retaliation would have a devastating and deterrent effect on the other side.
Understanding a possible blow-by-blow account of what a catastrophic cyber attack against a country such as Australia might look like is an important thought experiment but extremely difficult to model and predict. There are certainly others better placed than I to attempt to do so.
However, some comments from a political scientist and sociologist in the room provided the most useful general framing to explore what disabling digital networks would mean for an advanced and industrialised country. That framing was: What happens when the technology relied on by complex societies and systems is no longer functioning as it ought to? What happens to that society and system? Does it collapse, revert to simpler form or remain in stasis until the technology is restored?
Fragility of complex societies
As these questions were posed but never interrogated, I will modestly attempt to do so. Although an extreme and unlikely ending point, Joseph Tainter’s book The Collapse of Complex Societies is a useful place to begin. Tainter is looking at why complex societies collapse. This is not the same question behind this essay, as one is not presupposing the downfall of society as we know it. But Tainter does offer some powerful insights into what constitutes a complex and modern society.
The definition is simple enough. A complex society is one in which there is a high degree of specialisation, heterogeneity (diversity) in interests and abilities, and is under some form of centralised authority that regulates the institutions, organisations and social roles of that society.
The more important inquiry is why and how complex societies such as ours emerge and evolve. One suggestion is that complex societies create possibilities and solve problems that are impossible for smaller and more homogenous societies. In contemporary complex societies, modern technology allows greater specialisation of work and expertise, and heterogeneity more broadly, because ever growing populations can interact and co-operate with each other in ever more complicated, impersonal and instantaneous ways. This could be through phone or email. It might be in impersonal ways such as taking cash from an ATM or many drivers all responding in a predictable and efficient manner to a traffic light when it turns red. Different forms of specialised knowledge also can be integrated and more easily used by others instantaneously. For example, engineers, product designers, manufacturers, financiers, marketers, retailers and consumers interact and co-operate in ways that would be impossible without modern cyber and communication networks and infrastructure.
For those such as Tainter trying to understand why complex societies begin to fail or collapse, the simple answer is that there is a rapid and significant decline in complexity. This could be the result of war, internal unrest or, in the more modern context, a vast and prolonged disabling of the technology that enables complex interactions. If Australians are inhibited from engaging in these normal interactions and activities, we can no longer function as a complex system. Even discounting worst-case possibilities such as loss of access to power, water and other essential needs, our society becomes less complex. As specialisation is less used and interaction is retarded, our ability as a society to function and exist as a sophisticated and adaptive system is significantly diminished.
What does diminished complexity look like? Consider the role of money and what specialisation and technology such as digitisation have done for modern society. For thousands of years, money has created an alternative to the simple barter of physical goods and services between entities. Besides being a medium of exchange, money is also a “store of value”.
But the more profound purpose of money, as explained by Narayana Kocherlakota, an academic and former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, is that “money is memory”. This means the system of money is essentially a universally and publicly available record of who owes what to whom – a contract the holder of money has that is enforceable against everyone else in that system.
In modern times, we hold most of our money in digital form rather than cash. If we have $1m in our account, then we have the right to expect the rest of society owes us $1m worth of goods and services at a future time of our choosing. That digitisation of money, or any other asset such as property and shares, allows more sophisticated transactions on which the modern financial system and economy is built.
What happens if digitised networks are down for a long period? The causing of immense inconvenience is obvious. Moreover, easily accessible and relevant real-time data and instantaneous forms of communication in our digital world are what facilitate institutional and personal trust between entities, even if they do not know each other or had previous productive interactions in the past. A prolonged network outage would severely curtail the arms-length trust that enables complex societies to function.
In other words, it is the generation, storing, processing and access to reliable data in real-time and digital form that give people and organisations the confidence to interact and make agreements with arms-length entities. This is what we do when we deposit money in the bank, buy airline tickets online, or place buy or sell orders for shares through a broker.
Loss of instantly available digital data will also make it impossible for modern supply chains to function as the manifold parts of the system will have no way of communicating and co-ordinating with each other.
Across time, individuals and organisations will interact and co-operate in less complex and sophisticated ways in a much more localised ecosystem. This is due to reliable knowledge being obtainable only through personal verification and manually obtained information. Commercially and socially, we will probably be more tribal and constrained. Such a severe loss of social complexity is no longer compatible with a modern and functional nation-state under centralised authority on which our lifestyle and prosperity are based.
Geopolitics of outages
We end on the geopolitics of a hypothetical exchange of cyber attacks between advanced countries. I leave it to others better placed to speculate as to how feasible, prolonged or likely such a catastrophic scenario might be.
The concluding question that will be posed but not answered is what happens to various political and governing systems when a complex society loses complexity and becomes dysfunctional. If the digital communication network or payments system stops working for an extended period in Australia, the US and China, what would it mean for governments and governance in these countries?
There is no obvious or easy answer. But one could speculate that the Chinese Communist Party would have more reason to fear such extreme scenarios. Digitisation and other forms of technology have been commandeered by the CCP to increase and entrench its own exclusive power. This has been done through censorship, surveillance and the use of data-analytical tools to anticipate and minimise unrest and even plurality of thought, expression and action.
If digital authoritarianism is so relied on by the CCP to control behaviour and remain in power, then loss of that capacity will likely be a terrifying political prospect for a country such as China.
Regardless, this will be of little comfort to those in the liberal democracies. But a country such as China should pause to consider whether its apparent interest in cyber attacks serve its own interests. As with the arrival of the nuclear age, there will be mutually assured decimation of all complex societies involved in the exchange.