The Digital Revolution along with nuclear weapons and artificial intelligence are examples of technology that can result in human extermination. The reports below from the London Telegraph illustrate how technology has become the Black Plague of today.
Note: The solar storm of of 1859 named the “Carrington Event” only affected the telegraph system. Imagine what would happen if such a solar blast occurred today. — RH
The truth about Hard Sun’s solar apocalypse: just how scared should we be?
By Tristram Fane Saunders
You might not have noticed it, but two years ago an event took place which might just have brought about the collapse of modern civilization.
In July 2012, an enormous flare burst from the far side of the sun. Had it happened just one week earlier, it would have been pointing directly towards the Earth, causing the worst geomagnetic storm in over 400 years.
As Reuters reported at the time, the resulting magnetic disruption could have “fried the world’s electricity grids and left hundreds of millions of customers without power for months or even years”.
Next time, we might not be so lucky. A new BBC series, Hard Sun, imagines a similar solar phenomenon. Two London coppers (played by Jim Sturgess and Agyness Deyn) stumble across a USB drive containing a secret digital dossier, counting down towards an “extinction level event” in five years time.
In early episodes, there is some doubt about the cause – “Did it refer to a meteor, or a comet?” one character asks – but it doesn’t take Scotland Yard’s finest to figure out the truth: the drama begins with the sight of giant flares leaping from the surface of the sun.
“This isn’t science fiction. This is the real world,” the show’s writer Neil Cross has said. But how plausible is it? Should we be concerned? And for those of us who dozed off in science at school, what exactly is a geomagnetic storm anyway?
“The surface of the Sun is an incredibly dynamic place,” says astrophysicist Dr Katie Mack. In an active phase, it can release bursts of plasma and radiation into space. If directed towards the earth, these eruptions (known as Coronal Mass Ejections, or CMEs), can disrupt the Earth’s magnetic fields in what we call a geomagnetic storm. It’s a CME that we see in the opening moments of Hard Sun’s first episode.
“It can be hugely disruptive if it’s very strong,” Dr Mack explains. “Sudden variations in the electromagnetic field can cause sparks to pass between electronic components, shorting out circuits. The biggest dangers would be to satellites (including the GPS system) and to the power grid on Earth.”
The closest we have come to this kind of storm was the Carrington Event of 1859, named after the British astronomer Richard Carrington, who discovered a link between the “two patches of intensely bright and white light” he noticed erupting from sunspots just before the event, and the strange phenomena that followed. During this major geomagnetic storm, the Northern Lights were visible as far south as Honolulu, while eerie illuminations made the night almost as bright as the day.
One contemporary newspaper quoted a woman from Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina, who was dazzled by what she saw. “The whole island was illuminated,” she said. “The sea reflected the phenomenon, and no one could look at it without thinking of the passage in the Bible which says, ‘the sea was turned to blood.’ The shells on the beach, reflecting light, resembled coals of fire.”
For anyone working on the fledgling electrical telegraph system, the effects were far stranger. Sparks leapt from the machines, shocking the operators and setting fire to highly flammable telegraph paper. The surge of energy running through the wires was strong enough to melt the instruments’ platinum contacts.
While many telegraph communications stopped dead, a few operators in Boston found that their transmitters still worked even with the batteries unplugged, and that they were able to send telegraph messages using only the current from the aurora.
Today, with electricity and satellite communications playing an essential part in our daily lives, the effects would be far more serious.
A CME of that kind would not only knock out power generators, but also telecommunication towers. With no radio or TV news, and mobile phone networks dead, the sudden and unexplained black-out could easily lead to a mass panic and rioting. Worse still would be the potential failure of the all-important electric cooling systems at nuclear power plants; the result could be a disaster on the scale of the 2012 Fukushima incident.
A report published in 2013, following the previous year’s major CME, warned that “our society would still be picking up the pieces.” One of the report’s authors, Dr Daniel Baker of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, has suggested that it could take up to 10 years to fully recover from such an incident.
To make matters worse, in real life – unlike in Hard Sun – we wouldn’t have five years to prepare for it. At best, our advance notice would be closer to a single day. “We get 19 hours or more for a coronal mass ejection, but we don’t know whether or not it will hit Earth, or what the conditions may be,” Plasma physicist Dr Melanie Windridge told the Mail in November. “Fifteen minutes warning is all we have to tell us about the specific conditions of what will hit us and how problematic it could be.”
The chance of another enormous solar flare erupting in the next decade has been estimated at just one in eight. Of course, the chance of it being directed at Earth is much smaller, and there are steps we can take to prepare for such an event. In the US, the Department of Energy is working on a “strategic transformer reserve” – a system for providing power stations with back-up transformers to quickly replace any that might be knocked out by a geomagnetic storm.
Other possible safety measures include using capacitor banks to absorb excess energy, or constructing Faraday cages around irreplaceable pieces of equipment to block out electro-magnetic radiation. Even so, safeguarding the entire grid in this way could cost up to $30 billion.
But without these safeguards, would we really be looking at the kind of catastrophe imagined in Hard Sun? In the BBC One series, when detectives Renko and Hicks access the secret USB drive, a number of frightening and unintentionally ridiculous phrases flash up on screen: “magnetic disruption”; “homicide rates”; “body bag demand” (is the bag shortage itself really that much of a concern?); and more seriously, “crop failure”.
This nightmarish scenario, Dr Mack tells me, is a bit far-fetched. “I really doubt it could harm surface agriculture,” she says. “For something like that, you’d need something strong enough to seriously damage the magnetic field or atmosphere, and I don’t see how a CME from the Sun could be that powerful. It would be a short-term disruption and would mess with electromagnetic fields for a bit but it wouldn’t strip the Earth’s protection completely. Screwing with the power grid could harm a heck of a lot of things, but the CME itself isn’t going to kill all our plants.”
So, it’s not the end of the world after all? “We’re not doomed,” Dr Mack tells me, patiently. “There are procedures in place to try to shore up the power grid. Losing GPS and other satellite communications (and possibly cell phone communication) would be a huge mess but we’d recover.”
But what about all those BBC One viewers who have been left cowering behind the sofa? “We’re still learning a lot about the Sun. For example, the upcoming Parker Solar Probe will get up close and personal with the solar corona, hopefully solving some of the abiding mysteries and helping us make better predictions,” says Dr Mack. “If you’re worried, encourage more investment in space science!”
Note: If any other machine in history had been as unreliable as digital technology no one would have given it houseroom. It is only because we have allowed ourselves to become dangerously dependent on the technology that it is tolerated. — RH
Meltdown bug: Microsoft halts security updates after PC owners report ‘blue screen of death’
9 JANUARY 2018 • 2:40PM
Microsoft was forced to abruptly suspend security fixes for Meltdown and Spectre flaws over fears they might render millions of devices nothing more than expensive bricks.
Customers who have received the latest security update claimed they were met with “blue screen errors”, the so-called “blue screen of death”, or frozen screens on Windows 10, Windows 8.1 and Windows 7, Microsoft said in a blog post.
The technology company is working to send updates to billions of devices running Windows operating systems and are currently vulnerable to hacking thanks to a hardware flaw.
Last week it emerged that the security hole, which has existed in Intel, AMD and ARM chips for up to twenty years, could be leaking confidential information including passwords, files and photos from a range of devices including iPhones, iPads, Android smartphones and PCs. Apple and Google are also sending out security updates to affected products.
But in the latest twist for the Meltdown debacle, Microsoft’s hopes that remote software updates would solve the problem has been thwarted, as devices running AMD chips are not reacting as expected. Customers have also reported issues loading the start menu or task bar after installing the updates.
“To prevent AMD customers from getting into an unbootable state, Microsoft will temporarily pause sending the following Windows operating system updates to devices with impacted AMD processors at this time,” a Microsoft spokesman said in a statement.
The microchip bugs, which affect almost every computer processor in the world, were disclosed in an article by the Register. However, Intel had been made aware of the flaws – named Meltdown and Spectre – in June 2017 by Google researchers.
Since the announcement, it was feared that opportunistic criminals would seize the chance to exploit this flaw to steal passwords for online services, or personal and confidential files. Companies are working around the clock to create a software “workaround” to patch the holes. The alternative – something which was quickly rejected by technology companies – would be to recall millions of pieces of hardware.
Intel’s chief executive broke his silence on the matter on Monday evening during his keynote speech at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, claiming that 90 per cent of devices should be secured “within a week”.
Computing giant IBM also appeared to fall victim to the bug this week, with workers reportedly being told to stop updating their systems as new security fixes were playing havoc with antivirus protection already put in place.
Millions of computers using Intel chips prone to hacking – and fix ‘slows machines by 30 per cent.’
Software giants Microsoft and Amazon scramble to issue fix for Intel flaw, sacrificing computer performance in the meantime
3 JANUARY 2018 • 11:45AM
Millions of computers using Intel chips are prone to hacking because of a flaw that went unnoticed for a decade, it has emerged.
Software giants are currently working on a fix for the flaw but industry experts have warned it could potentially slow down all devices running the chips by up to 30 per cent.
The flaw could allow hackers a “persistent and undetectable backdoor into someone’s computer”, Mike Godfrey, cyber expert at Insinia Security told the Telegraph.
The flaw grants access to a computer’s kernel, which runs and stores every function on the device, and means an outsider could potentially bypass antivirus or firewall security software without the owner knowing. It could allow malicious software to steal passwords and sensitive files or crystallographic keys, necessary for keeping us safe online.
The National Cyber Security Centre, an arm of GCHQ issued a statement on Wednesday afternoon advising individuals to install updates when they became available.
“We are aware of reports about a potential flaw affecting some computer processors,” a spokesman said.
“At this stage there is no evidence of any malicious exploitation and patches are being produced for the major platforms.”
Intel chips appear in almost all personal computers and other technology. Financial institutions and businesses with large IT infrastructure may have been compromised for several years, Godfrey added. Train systems and autonomous cars also use the chips.
Intel has reportedly warned software vendors including Microsoft, Amazon and Apple, who are believed to be creating a workaround to fix the flaw. But this fix could make computers 30 per cent slower, according to technology website The Register.
Matthew Hickey, security expert and co-founder at My Hacker House said: “The real problem is for companies trying to support customers on their servers. Hypothetically, if a company once had capacity to support 100,000 users, that number may drop to 70,000.
“It could have real cost implications for businesses that have been using or intend to use cloud technology and Intel servers.”
The bug has been known by security workers for some time, but is not due to be publicly disclosed until software giants like Amazon and Microsoft have issued a patch, so that the details cannot be exploited by criminals. Fixes are expected to be released in the next week.
Intel itself is unable to fix the flaw, so guarding against it requires a software update that will slow computers by between 5 per cent and 30 per cent, or to fix the processors completely.
Hundreds of millions of devices could be affected, including those still on the production lines.
Mr Hickey added: “The real problems are for companies who are trying to get the best performance out of servers to support so many users. They may find that they had the capacity to support 100,000 users on their software, but that number could drop to 70,000. It could have real cost implications for business.”
It is unclear whether anyone has been hacked thanks to this flaw, but penetration tester at Insinia Security, Matthew Carr, told the Telegraph that it was not inconceivable that a vulnerability that has existed for ten years had already been exploited by nation states, criminal gangs or expert level hackers.
Chip rival AMD shares soared 7.2 per cent after the disclosure on Wednesday, while Intel dropped to a low of 3.8 per cent.
Intel have yet to comment on the matter. Microsoft had nothing to share and Google, Amazon and Apple are yet to comment.