Do you remember the Doomsday Clock? I’m sure lifelong Seacoast residents are all too familiar with it, given our proximity to the former Pease Air Force Base and Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. I have friends who grew up in Portsmouth who remember having school drills where they would duck under their desks in preparation for a possible attack on the area. Not that this would have helped, but that’s a different story line entirely.
For those who may not know about the Doomsday Clock, this is a Cold War relic developed by scientists to represent the threat nuclear weapons and the Cold War represented to humanity. It’s a stark analogy. The premise of the Doomsday Clock is this: It is a reminder of the existential threat to the human race we created for ourselves. It was founded by scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project, which built the world’s first nuclear weapon during World War II. Realizing what they had created, they then created the Doomsday Clock as a stark warning to humanity that nuclear weapons should never be used, lest we destroy the entire human race, by our own hand.
In 1953, the Doomsday Clock sat at two minutes before midnight, indicating in theory, we were minutes away from destroying ourselves. Not a pleasant place to be. The Doomsday Clock has moved around since its inception. Our best place in history was in 1991, when we stood at 17 minutes before midnight. Over the last 28 years, we have steadily moved to the precarious place we now sit. There are several reasons for this, mostly what the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists now calls our “new abnormal.”
Our new abnormal is driven by several factors, not the least of which is the United States eroding leadership position on the world stage. Historically, our nation has been looked at as the barometer for global stability. Our current policies, highlighted by withdrawals from nuclear weapons and climate change agreements have accelerated this state of affairs. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists relies on science and rational debate to form its position. In the case of climate change, the science is clear. In the case of nuclear arms agreements, this is as much about politics as anything else and that is truly a topic for a different type of article.
As it relates to cybersecurity, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists argues we have come to a point in our technological evolution where cybersecurity risks represent an existential threat to the survival of our species. Think about that. Technology could be a threat to our existence. I would argue most people look at technology as an enabler of a better future existence. So how could this be?
There are now more threats that intersect and in some cases magnify one another. Technology is a cornerstone of nuclear power and weapons and was heavily leveraged in a clandestine operation to disrupt the Iranian nuclear program before diplomatic efforts were accelerated. Technology has brought the age of information warfare upon us. From events in the Ukraine to our own elections, information warfare should not be a surprise and many feel we are at the tip of the iceberg.
Cybersecurity attacks are a threat to our financial, utility, health care, communication, food supply networks and more. Imagine the devastation that could be caused by taking down any one of these critical infrastructure networks, let along multiple events at the same time. Financial losses and physical damage would be the least concerning outcome. Loss of life could be significant, some argue as significant as a nuclear detonation. We must understand the magnitude of the threat to have rational conversations to not only mitigate the threat, but prevent it.
Two minutes to midnight is not a good place to be. We, as a global, interdependent advanced human race, need to recognize the risks that come with each new development. Most importantly, we need to render these risks inert, lest we condemn our future generations to a fate we never intended. This article unfolded more darkly than I intended. Perhaps that’s a good thing, to make the point clear. At the end of the day, it’s up to us, as individuals, as part of a larger family and society, as stewards of our past and our future, to ensure our advances improve the future, not unreasonably threaten it. What will you do to help move the Doomsday Clock back from its present time of two minutes before midnight?