Remember the Y2K crisis that gripped everybody, a thousand years ago*, in 1999? There was panic worldwide that computers would crash on January 1, 2000 because their internal timekeepers, running on two digit years, would reset to 00. It gained a mini-vocabulary of its own, going by names like year 2000 problem, Y2K problem, the millennium bug and the Y2K bug. It also cost individuals, governments and companies a whopping $300 billion to rectify.
Imagine that. An entire industry was spawned by the need to add two digits to every computer’s internal calendar. And it spawned ancillaries in practically everything – from new computers that were Y2K-compliant to back-up devices, to programs that helped secure your computer against all manner of vulnerabilities. And I suppose it added something to India’s GDP, as many of my generation were just joining the IT workforce, with Y2K often being their first ‘project’. But still, look at the price tag – $300 billion.
Now think – what could the IT industry do to get such fast money again? A spectacular new demand, with a matchingly spectacular growth rate? My answer – WikiLeaks.
Oh yes, it is an opaquely-hosted website which embarasses governments and is run by a roving ‘free society’ idealogue. Whose arrest might lead to an awkward diplomatic row. So what is it that makes it look like an IT-industry conspiracy?
One might be the threat it put out that the next victim of its leaks might be an American bank. A lot of people might look forward to this, hoping to get a glimpse of what happened in 2008. But from that, I get a chance to spin my own conspiracy theory.
Folk have wondered how very, very sensitive military and diplomatic documents could have reached WikiLeaks. We know Assange is an ex-hacker. Put two and two together, and you get the following question. If WikiLeaks could have hacked into the American government’s computers (though there is no proof that it did), how would you be sure it wouldn’t hack yours next?
Imagine you are Nestle (who kills orangutans in Borneo as Greenpeace alleges), BP (leaking petroleum into the Gulf of Mexico), AIG (who underwrote Wall Street’s CDOs and CDSs) or Areva (who is allegedly trying to push an untested reactor onto India). There’s a lot of data on your machines, that in the wrong hands, and leaked to the public in a selective way can do enormous damage to you. You’d hardly be able to react, and the legal remedies would take time in the courts. You’re really anxious about securing your data. You’ve banned CDs and pen drives from your office. Computers that connect to the net are isolated from computers that store data. You’ve tried snooping on your employees. And you’re still scared.
In steps an IT firm, with a new programme. That will ensure your machines are rendered proof against any kind of hacking attempt. Hundred percent hack-proof. Cannot be hacked, even if it was the CIA trying to do it. The only thing that can hack your machine is a pickaxe. A very heavy one, with a sharp blade.
The cost of installing the software on all your machines (say you have a 100) is only nominal. Say about $ 3 million or so. Negotiable. Say we’ll do it at $2.5 million. With a free, latest antivirus that kills 99.99% of all viruses thrown in for free. Really. That’s cheap. Any cheaper and we’re cutting our throats. And it’s cheap considering the billions of dollars you’ll hemorrhage if your data was leaked. Right, here’s where you have to sign.
Satire apart, this promises to be a growing industry. Could potentially rake in hundreds of billions of dollars, making Y2K look like small change. That’s a lot of business for IT companies, as American & European companies ‘offshore’ the software to India. That’s a lot of employment for fresh-faced graduates from the engineering colleges that have mushroomed all over rural South India. That’s a lot of code to write, to test, to debug, to alpha-test, to beta-test, to go critical. That’s lots of opportunities for our young men and women to go abroad on ‘onsite’ missions. Simply put, that’s a lot of money.
So why wouldn’t some IT chaps get together and hatch this brilliant conspiracy? You only needed a fall guy who sincerely believes in freedom of speech and the right to reject authority. Who’ll set up a site like WikiLeaks, figure out the laws that make it possible, get hold of friends like Bradley Manning. And embarass a few governments, just enough to make companies – big, medium or small – panic. And throw a lot of money at your data security product.
A lot of money for companies to not face what financial folk call ‘headline risk’. But that might be a lot of money saved on hiring PR agents (sorry, Niira Radia), issuing counter advertisements (though that’s a loss for ad agencies) and having to implement expensive structural changes. And then having to buy the anti-hacking software anyway. Apart from board members looking awkward after details of what they said about each other behind their backs turns up in the Ecuadorean press, in the section between Lady Gaga and the three-headed cobra from Calcutta.
Never mind that the cables disclosed on WikiLeaks were actually passed on by a disgruntled employee. Who (apparently) simply downloaded the stuff onto a CD lalbelled Lady Gaga, and passed it on to the guys at WikiLeaks. Who might have not done it had the HR in the US State Department been better. Or not. I mean, who is going to get into appraisals, salary bands, promotions, job descriptions, KRAs and all that stuff, just because there’s an anti-secrecy loony out there? So much more cheaper to buy an anti-hacking software, and pray that it really works when the crunch comes.
For all I know, you might as well buy a fairness cream. But as an advertising strategy for selling anti-hacking software, I think it’s hard to beat WikiLeaks as a strategy.
Anyway, thanks Julian Assange, for this opportunity to write a conspiracy theory.
*It’s an exaggeration, but in this era of rapidly changing technology, doesn’t 2000 sound like a thousand years ago?