Two days after Christmas arguments spiraled out of control in millions of households around the nation. Which bozo cut the wire to the internet? Who disconnected the router and the Xbox? Who dinged the remote controller for the game boy?
Far more serious than these domestic squabbles is the fact that thousands of emergency calls to 911 made from landlines (that depended on wireless access through CenturyLink) did not work from Massachusetts to Missouri. For a while electronic medical records could not be accessed in Greeley, Colorado, and doctors had to resort to pen and paper to take notes.
Truth now can be told. The cause of these collapsing communications was not your hopelessly out of date Uncle Cecil. Nor did spiteful squirrels sabotage satellite dishes. Fueled by the well-engineered bump in seductive online holiday sales, a faulty network card “propagating invalid frame packets across devices,” mucked up the works. Propelled by the internet itself, the more people sought to connect, the more gooey geeky gunk mired the system in digital chewing gum.
Not clear whether the weakest part of the Century Link network may be their hundred-year-old rural system or their use of Huawei switches that were especially prone to a perverse bot that basically overwhelmed the central routing system. Bottom line is that among the things we must pray for this holiday season is that none of us needs 911. If you do not get through, then drive to the nearest Fire Station or Fire Alarm box—as those are hard-wired and working. Seriously
As this highly inconvenient outage makes clear our dependency on wireless is nearly complete, so this breakdown hit most folks hard. You wake up and you can’t order your groceries. You cannot check the weather. You cannot use the walkie talkie device to wake the children. You cannot figure out which holiday movie to download. And forget about finishing Fortnite or Minecraft–Star Wars or not. Left unaddressed amidst all these frustrations is growing evidence from U.S. government and other expert groups that wireless radiation itself accelerates the growth of cancer cells.
There can be no denying that the internet constitutes our civic commons, a basic public good that should be accessible throughout society. Even where we may not agree with messages that it can include, when this vital highway of modern life fails, as it has recently with a widespread failure of 911 calls and a cascade of other calamities, this provides us with a rude reminder that we are all in its thrall.
What are we to do? As Tim Schoechle, a former industry network designer, powerfully documents, in his report on The Future of Landlines and Networks, open public access to the internet is essential for our security and safety. The Century Link outage provides compelling proof that such access can never be met through wireless systems. Wired systems are faster, more secure, reliable, energy efficient, and safer than wireless. Wired lines provide quicker safer ways to download and share information, that cannot be disturbed. That’s why banking has always required wired systems for its own networks.
“Wireless mobile services for the delivery of broadband provides false hope for the future and promotes inefficient use of resources in the present,” argues Columbia University economist Eli Noam in his 2011 paper, “Let Them Eat Cellphones: why mobile wireless is no solution for broadband.” Noam appreciates that historically, industry seeks the cheapest, quickest, and most profitable path, which has directly led to both our growing wireless dependency and the latest outages. Schoechle is one of many observers to call this a bad bet. Further, both these specialists effectively expose just how naked the wireless emperor is:
Schoechle concludes that “It is unrealistic to expect private capital to build what the public needs. …A broadband [wired]fiber access network should enjoy the status of basic public infrastructure—comparable to roads, streets, water systems, schools and electricities—and all communities should be entitled to build and use these facilities.”
The spreading Facebook ethic of “move fast and break things” is leading many to abandon any pretense of personal privacy and security.
Not so fast.
The Right to Privacy is a fundamental right established in the U.S. Constitution. Specifically, the Fourth Amendment guarantees individuals freedom from intrusions into their homes or into matters relating to their personal lives. After Wikileaks (a Russian-fronted effort) disclosed national tracking of phone calls aimed at fingering terrorists, the court ruled that the need to track extremists does not allow the government to subject every citizen to permanent surveillance.
More to the point, we need a serious national conversation on what rights we are willing to forgo as part of the expansive growth of technology–wireless or wired. Lacking any historical precedence for privacy, and recognizing the value of credit scores for commerce, China has officially begun to create a ‘social credit’ system (shehui xinyong) ranking individuals in terms of their compliance with a host of social and economic obligations, including paying taxes and curbing pollution. Offenders are to be placed on blacklists that can limit their ability to get loans or have their children admitted to university. According to one Chinese writer, its intended goals are “establishing the idea of a sincerity culture, and carrying forward sincerity and traditional virtues.” Who could argue against that?
So how exactly will a nation of more than 1.6 billion go about scoring its own people? One thing they are moving on is creating massive systems of fiber-optic wired cable into millions of homes and workplaces. Another component involves taking facial recognition and other biometric technologies to a whole new level.
What about the U.S.? Since starting a pilot effort in 2016, most major airports are now relying on your blurry digital image that pops up on the screen of the customs officer welcoming you home. For the U.S. and for China, facial recognition is just the beginning. Honed on studies of cows in pain about to give birth, computer-driven cameras are being trained not only to recognize human faces, but also to track individuals by their walks and gestures, according to recent reporting in The New Yorker.
Complicating plans for tracking is the fact that lines between Chinese government and business are often blurry beyond distinction. Consider how this works so far for Alibaba—the world’s largest online shopping system that has its own payment platform (called Alipay) that creates scoring for their Sesame credit system. Those of its 400 million users who pay the most, the fastest, get higher scores, than those who play video games all day long. This is data-mining taken to an entirely new level. Plus there is no way for anyone to learn the algorithms that make up their score, nor to dispute the result.
So where does this leave those of us who suffered the pangs of digital withdrawal during the Century Link service disruption? U.S. networks are privately controlled. Although hundreds of millions have been provided to underwrite secure copper lines and optical fiber systems, much of that money has been diverted to wireless systems that are prone to hacking and doomed to extinction. What about the promise of 5G? According to Sean Hollister, in TheVerge.com, “The first real-world test of 5G [in Maui with Verizon and AT&T] was a dud.” While no one has been able to get ahold of a 5G phone or hub, images of their prototypes show chunky devices that look improbably cumbersome, propped up in large cup-holders that are unlikely to be graspable. Human hands can block some of the multiple antennas these devices are sure to contain.
Yes, technology is complicated. But that complexity does not mean we should forgo any pretense of scrutiny. Whether dealing with our elections or the marketing to the baby-industrial complex, fraud and botnets make up as much as half of all digital traffic. Rather than reducing global warming, the wireless cloud through its new underwater-cooled data centers burned as much fossil fuel as 4.9 million new cars from 2012-15. Billions have been allocated to build a wireless system that purportedly secures our safety and capacity to communicate. As the ricocheting collapse of the Internet last week makes plainly clear, that system does not exist. It’s time to take a new look at all of this, before we find out that the light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train.
Devra Davis is an award-winning scientist and author. Her Jackson TEDx talk October 7 “Rapid Fire – What Brain And Sperm Share And Why Care” and her ThinkWY Public Radio Podcast: “Dr. Devra Davis: What Up! Cell Phones Are Not Toys For Young Children” are available online. She is President of Environmental Health Trust, a non-profit promoting safer technology; blogs for Oxford University Press, The Hill, Huffington Post, and others; Visiting Professor of Medicine at Hebrew University Jerusalem and Ondokuz Mayis University, Samsun, Turkey; and Visiting Professor at Sichuan University.