by Ruth Gee.
On Friday May 12th computer systems across the world were attacked by a virus affecting more than 200,000 victims in 150 countries. The UK was among the worst hit of the countries and 61 NHS trusts in England and Scotland reported problems.
In the following days I found myself, as a follower of one in whose life power was shown through vulnerability, reflecting on the use and abuse of power. In this instance much of the power was held by those who had specific information. Events were influenced by the ways in which they chose to share or to hold that information.
WannaCry ransomware encrypts the files on computer systems so that they cannot be accessed and then demands a ransom, paid in Bitcoin to unlock them. On this occasion the problem was made even worse because of the use of a tool known as Eternal Blue. It was reported that Eternal Blue was used by the National Security Agency in the USA and leaked by Shadow Brokers, a hacker group. Eternal Blue allows WannaCry to infect all the computers in a network once any one has been accessed.
WannaCry, Eternal Blue, Shadow Brokers and Bitcoin: a series of mysterious and evocative words hinting at mystery and dark secrets to the uninitiated. When translated into language we can understand it becomes clear that this is the language of subversive power and exploitation, it is the language of piracy, domination and theft.
As the computer systems in hospitals became useless, operations and procedures were cancelled and vulnerable people suffered. In the North East, the Nissan plant had to cease production. Internationally, there was widespread disruption. Ransom money was paid into Bitcoin wallets, digital containers for a digital currency that is not linked to any bank or government and can be used anonymously. The piratical blackmailers made a killing and it will happen again.
We are undoubtedly enriched by the ability to use technology to increase the efficiency in hospitals, transport networks and industry. Those who have access to computer systems and the internet are able to communicate fast and effectively. Through the World Wide Web we can access reports about events almost as soon as they happen, from almost anywhere. Such technology is a great gift and, at its best, it can be a means of providing support fast and well to those in need, of offering educational opportunities and of increasing our understanding of the lives of others. Communication and sharing are important elements in the life of a community and through modern technology we have the promise, or perhaps the illusion, of a world-wide community.
On May 12th we were reminded of the vulnerability that exists alongside the promise of enhanced communication. It is a vulnerability that is at least partially due to an imbalance of power, where some people hold knowledge and decide how and where it will be shared.
Eternal Blue was a very useful tool for the National Security Agency. By making use of vulnerability in computer systems, agents could hack into the computer networks of terrorist groups and access information that could lead to the prevention of attacks and the apprehension of criminals. That same vulnerability could be exploited by criminal hackers. Jay Caplan, formerly a worker at the National Security Agency described the dilemma in these words in the Guardian, “It’s this constant tug of war. Do you let intelligence agencies continue to take advantage of vulnerabilities to fight terrorists or do you give it to the vendors and fix them?” Had Microsoft known of the vulnerability earlier, the problem might have been rectified more effectively but the security agency chose not to share their knowledge.
Other decisions made by people with power impacted on events on May 12th. Many affected NHS trusts were vulnerable because they were working with old computer systems that could not be updated and properly protected. Warnings had been given but hard choices had to be made with limited funds and it is reported that some chose not prioritise updating computer systems. Decisions made in good faith led to increased vulnerability and disruption for those needing care.
The 8th century prophets criticised the abuse of power by those in authority in Israel. They condemned those who used false weights and measures, who enriched themselves and lay on golden beds whilst the faces of the poor were ground into the dust of the earth. Jesus challenged the religious leaders who held power and had deep knowledge of the scriptures and religious tradition but failed to recognise the priority of loving their neighbours.
In the story of WannaCry (still unfolding as I write) there are questions for those who seek to do justice and love kindness about use and abuse of power, the sharing of knowledge, accountability, and vulnerability.