Thursday, August 02, 2018

Threats and Security

cartoon by Joel Pett for the Lexington Herald Leader

Comcast had a nationwide business phone outage during the first week of June. Thousands of companies that rely on landlines were out of luck for a couple of days. Comcast provides business and residential service in 40 states. An outage affecting that many states should have been a big story, but it wasn’t. You didn’t see it on the nightly news, or read about it in your local paper. I only know about it because it impacted my workplace for two days, and I had to dig to find the story. 

Comcast is a huge telecommunications company. They’re the top broadband service provider in the United States. Back in the olden days, we were wary of monopolies, so Ma Bell was busted up back in 1983. By 1940, Bell owned most of the telephone service in the US. An anti-trust lawsuit brought in 1974 alleged that Bell was using illegal practices to stifle competition. The settlement of that suit resulted in the 1983 divestiture.

Somewhere along the way, we stopped worrying about monopolies, and decided to let them flourish. As a result we have few local banks, even fewer independently owned commercial radio stations, and we have telecommunications monopolies that provide us with lousy service for extremely high costs.

The 40 state, two-day phone outage should serve as a cautionary tale. At a time when our president is talking about creating a new branch of the military to allegedly defend us from space, it’s worth noting that an enemy of the US could dismantle us by neutralizing the two biggest telecoms. They’re perfect targets. It would be so much easier to hit one giant company than 50 smaller ones. The resulting confusion and inability to communicate would mean we’d be hard pressed to defend ourselves, even if every gun totin’, gummint hating,  freedumb fighter got out their arsenals and started firing.

These monopolies should be regarded as what they are – a threat to our national security. Combine them with our crumbling infrastructure, and we’re in a big mess. The preferred course of action, however, is to give corporate America big tax breaks, fail to invest in our country, and continue to allow those mergers. The latest idea from our leader is to invest in a Space Force. What is it with these old Republican men? Reagan stuck us with Star Wars, the missile defense program that wasted over $260 billion taxpayer dollars and accomplished nothing. 

Our president has acknowledged that there was Russian interference in our last election, but far from being concerned, Congress opted to cut spending on election security. We continue to live in a past where the USA really is number one, and we are invulnerable. Or maybe this is just their way of letting us know that elections really don’t matter any more.

Telecommunications are not the only potential security weakness we have. Do you really believe that our nuclear power plants are amply protected from enemies? Samples of plutonium were stolen from a government contractor’s car last year in San Antonio. They’ve never been recovered. Earlier this year we learned that the airmen who guard nuclear missile silos were taking LSD and other drugs. The Air Force claims they weren’t using drugs while on duty. None of this inspires confidence.

 What about the power grid? We’ve been repeatedly warned that the grid was susceptible to a cyber attack. Ponder what would happen if a cyber attack on the grid were combined with an attack on a monopoly telecom.

Meanwhile, the TSA has a domestic surveillance program called, “Quiet Skies,” where Americans who are not suspected of any crime, but match behavioral criteria are being investigated by undercover air marshals who trail them. Fidgeting, facial flushing, or “a cold penetrating stare,” are all grounds for surveillance. This is intended to mitigate the threat to commercial aviation posed by unknown or partially unknown terrorists. In the face of very real threats to our elections and infrastructure, our choice is to spy on fidgety fliers. No information is being disclosed as to how successful this program is, if any terrorist plots have been foiled, or arrests made. If there had been, it would certainly be headline news.

The TSA is part of the Department of Homeland Security. The Department of Homeland Security has an annual budget of more than  $41 billion. The department refuses to be audited. No transparency for we the taxpayers. Still, don’t give a cold, penetrating stare to the next representative of DHS that you see, or a US Marshal will be following you home.

While we debate about whether climate change is real or not, other countries are embracing science and technology and moving forward into the future. They’re leaving us behind in the dust of our egotistical past. 

Published as an op-ed in the August 3, 2018 edition of the Conway Daily Sun newspaper

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