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The History of Cybersecurity with Joseph Menn

Episode 306
How can we protect ourselves in the new age of cybersecurity (or lack thereof)? Joseph Menn, investigative journalist of over 30 years, shares how.

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We live in a world where cybersecurity (or lack thereof) levels the playing field. Wars suddenly don’t have to cost billions and trillions of dollars; instead, all an attack takes is a computer and malintent. But at the same time, all it takes is a computer and goodwill to bring down an oppressive government or infiltrate a human trafficking ring. Cyber capabilities can be used for good just as much as they can be used for bad. So what does this new, cheap, easy-to-access technology mean for businesses, governments, and, most importantly, the general population?

Over his three-decade-long career, that’s the question Joseph Menn has set out to ask… and answer. 

“People liked having the power of a NASA supercomputer in their pocket, and they didn’t really think about all the downsides… But, since 2016, the scales have fallen from people’s eyes and they see that there’s real danger and there are real problems with manipulation of people’s emotions, people getting addicted to tech, and it being a plaything for foreign and domestic powers for disinformation. This has really caused people to ask a lot of questions, and the answers from the companies have just frankly been inadequate.”

Joseph is an author and investigative journalist at Reuters. He is one of the most respected mainstream journalists focusing on tech policy and cybersecurity issues today. 

He recently released his latest book titled Cult of the Dead Cow: How the Original Hacking Supergroup Might Just Save the World, which tells the story of the oldest, most respected, and most famous American hacking group of all time. Its members invented the concept of hacktivism and created what was, for years, the best tool for controlling computers remotely. Their actions have forced large corporations to focus more on protecting their company’s and customers’ security. 

In this episode, Chad and Joseph discuss the history of computer hacking, Joseph’s writings over his 30-year career as a journalist, and what it looks like to be an investigative journalist today.

Quotes by Joseph:

“What was interesting about [Napster] is that it was pretty clearly illegal what they were doing, and the blue-chip venture capital firms went to invest in it anyway. And so, to me, it was a great illustration of how the venture capital system around [Silicon Valley] can jumpstart technology but also corrupt it because it’ll take it off in a weird direction if they think that’s where the big payout might be.”

“The problem is that cyber is asymmetric, so it’s a great way for little countries to catch up to us. We’ve got a whole bunch of bombers and that’s great. Even North Korea, which is an impoverished, desperate country can train up some hackers and do some pretty serious damage. The more that cyber attacks are seen as kosher, the more we’re raising the risks for civilians.”

“People liked having the power of a NASA supercomputer in their pocket, and they didn’t really think about all the downsides. You heard people being worried about jobs getting replaced, but [those concerns] were brushed off [in favor of the idea that there’ll] be these new, great tech jobs that are cleaner and better, and as you know, that’s the march of progress. But, since 2016, the scales have fallen from people’s eyes and they see that there’s real danger and there are real problems with manipulation of people’s emotions, people getting addicted to this stuff, and it being a plaything for foreign and domestic powers for disinformation. This has really caused people to question a lot, and the answers from the companies have just frankly been inadequate.”

[On the dangers of uncovering and sharing this history.] “Normally, the worst thing that can happen to you if you’re a book writer is that you get sued for libel and the second-worst thing that can happen is that nobody reads your book. And those were like number 11 and 12 for Fatal System Error.” 

“[The field of journalism] has definitely changed. There’s a proliferation of sources now. There’s more good journalism now than there has been in the past. It’s just, there’s also so much bad journalism.”

Mentions:

All the Rave: The Rise and Fall of Shawn Fanning’s Napster

Fatal System Error: The Hunt for the New Crime Lords Who Are Bringing Down the Internet

Cult of the Dead Cow: How the Original Hacking Supergroup Might Just Save the World

Sandworm: A New Era of Cyberwar and the Hunt for the Kremlin’s Most Dangerous Hackers by Andy Greenberg

Silicon Valley

Sneakers

Risk

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