The Unconnected


I recently saw advertisement for a 16gB flash drive for $8 and I smiled as I thought about how cheap memory had gotten compared to twelve years ago when I bought a 32mB flash drive for $200. It is a nice benefit of Moore’s law, but it also brought a slight shudder as I thought about its provenance. Several years ago, there was a rash of malware transmitted from flash memory embedded in digital picture frames. It was a ham-handed attempt at infecting computers world wide, but it made me concerned that most of our technology comes from China. It also gave me the idea of maintaining an unconnected computer, one that requires no internet connection and would serve as a repository of important information and private thoughts.

The Chinese understand this issue as a national security one, and recently announced the creation of its first homegrown supercomputer. Less noticed was the fact that all the processors were custom silicon using custom instruction sets -without knowledge of these instructions, it would be devilishly hard to create programs to enter, monitor, and transmit information. It is the ultimate in unconnected computer and its appearance should be as dismaying as finding a black monolith pulsating with data in the Serengeti. With custom silicon and architecture and an unknown operating system -likely a custom written and compiled Unix, this computer stands apart.

My son’s favorite show is Star Wars Clone Wars. The loyal and brave clones in this series are doomed because ultimately, they are designed to betray their Jedi masters when they are most vulnerable. The Sith Lord enacts Order 66, which causes the Clones to turn on their Jedi leaders. It makes me wonder, how much of the processing power in government and military hardware is sourced from China, and if our insistence on transparency, openness, and interconnectedness is an exposed Achilles heel. Is my iPhone really mine, or does it serve several competing masters? Will our next Pearl Harbor or 9/11 be all the electricity and cell service turning off with planes and satellites crashing and my Facebook telling me to go quickly to the place where the planes and satellites will be crashing?

The only way to really know your computer is secure is to make your own computer using chips and circuitry of known provenance. For example, if you created a parallel array of G4 processors made in California with graphics processors made in California, and running an OS that you can inspect line by line and compile yourself, you might be safe. Going further, you can go completely off the grid and eschew technology and society, keeping your own counsel and recording your thoughts in Moleskine notebooks with pencils stolen from golf courses.

Plausible? Of course not. What China has done is create the equivalent structure of a walled city in its completely home-brewed computer. It sends a message and how you interpret it is up to you.