Fairfax Tech Column

Fairfax Tech Column

15.3.2019 Fairfax Tech Column 138

How are those Russian election conspiracy theories going? First, in the middle of a NSW State election, the Electoral Commission computers go down which almost brought pre-polling to a shuddering halt. This computer network has some additional complexity due to the nature of building a huge network across the State for a short period once every couple of years but they know about the next election years in advance so there is really little excuse for not having it working and tested and ready to operate. That seems like a little one-off inconvenience. Then, to add some fuel to the fire, Facebook goes down. Facebook does what? Facebook is admittedly a huge connected network with 2.32 billion active users across the world but it seems inconceivable that their network would go down.

OK, so I am not thinking that the Russians or Chinese are hacking the Electoral Commission computer network AND Facebook to impact the NSW election but it does highlight how much we rely on so many things that are completely outside of our control.

Think of everyday items we come to use and rely on. Electricity; telephones; gas; water; petrol; food. So many items have such a complex supply chain that an interruption in one part of the world can have far-reaching effects. I think we need a modern equivalent of the famous quote from sixty years ago by Edward Lorenz, “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?”

Perhaps a modern equivalent: “Does a cable cut in a data centre in Reno cause a café to go broke in Sydney?” Just as with Lorenz’s butterfly effect, the consequences seem to far outweigh the initial action but we do live in a highly connected world. When that café tries to charge someone for their coffee, does the owner of that café realise where the data for their Point of Sale (POS) system is stored? What connections are in place between the café and their data. They are relying on power supplied by a variety of organisations to complete the link. A number of Internet Service Providers (ISPs) will provide data linkages from the café to their actual POS data stored somewhere in the cloud. That is just for the transaction. Then their EFTPOS machine will require an entirely different set of connections to be able to process the monetary transaction. It may be a little far-fetched – as is the original butterfly notion – but most organisations across the world right now are relying on linkages, companies and connections that they have never heard of and are completely unaware of.

What can we do about it? Go off the grid and revert to paper and pencil? For a technology column, I am unlikely to suggest that. What I do suggest is to be vaguely aware of what connections we have and, if given a choice, choose providers a little closer to home to reduce the number of steps and potential disconnection. In the meantime, embrace some time without Facebook.

Mathew Dickerson