Las Vegas showed how hackers conquered America
The hackers won a long time ago. Last Sunday was just when the scale of their victory became obvious.
That night in Las Vegas, dozens of people died, and hundreds were wounded, when automatic gunfire rained down on a country music festival. And then the misinformation campaign began. False stories from dodgy sources — the murky website 4chan, the Russian propaganda outlet Sputnik — were featured for hours as trending items on Facebook and Google, just as people around the world tried to figure out what had happened. Sophisticated trolls had anticipated, correctly, that the tech giants’ automated algorithms would serve up fabricated “news.”
Those trolls weren’t the only people who’d manipulated events for their own ends. The Las Vegas massacre itself was evidence of a far more consequential hack: a commandeering of the American political system to maximize the sale of deadly weaponry.
The Las Vegas killer, after all, used assault rifles that had been converted into automatic weapons via legal “bump stock” kits. Virtually nobody in the political mainstream will overtly defend the personal ownership of machine guns. Unfortunately, of all the systems governing our world, computer networks aren’t the only ones that are far less secure than they look. Political structures, too, can also be hacked and put to private use.
Increasingly, our political dialogue operates by the rhythms of tech platforms, which have a financial incentive to circulate inflammatory and even made-up information as long as it keeps people clicking. Political organizers depend less and less on persuading the median voter than on riling up the extremes, a trend that only accelerates as the traditional network news declines and as niche media outlets proliferate. Our system, as it operates today, has a fateful flaw: On issue after issue, moderates have lost the ability to tell hard-liners, “Stop it! You’re being ridiculous.”
In this environment, a position doesn’t need to be popular to become politically unassailable. Case in point: The National Rifle Association has successfully pushed to roll back legislation to keep guns from mentally ill buyers, and it has opposed efforts to expand background checks for private sales. On these issues, Pew Research Center polling suggests, the NRA leadership takes more extreme positions than its own members. Furthermore, NRA members are a minority of gun owners, who are a minority of American households. When politicians are afraid of crossing a subset of a subset of a special interest group, that’s not democracy in action; it’s a system malfunction.
Exploiting flaws is what hackers do. A couple of years ago, The Washington Post published a fascinating history of a seminal Boston-based hacker collective called L0pht — named for the South End loft where members kept their equipment — whose members reveled in making computer systems do things that their designers never intended. “The difference between how it’s supposed to work and how it really works,” one former L0pht member told the Post, “is where the vulnerabilities happen.”
That discrepancy, by the way, explains perhaps the grandest of political hacks: Donald Trump’s presidency.
For years, House Speaker Paul Ryan and other establishment leaders have campaigned as if social conservatism and economic libertarianism were their party’s biggest draws. But Trump saw a soft spot: Many grass-roots voters weren’t motivated by small-government ideology; they felt alienated in a globalized world and beleaguered by the nation’s changing demographics. Trump played to that. Armed only with name recognition, a Twitter account, and a knack for calculated outrageousness, he took over an entire political party in less than a year.
When hackers succeed, they’re like the dog that catches the car: OK, what now? After winning the White House, Trump hasn’t shown much interesting in governing. When last Sunday dawned, the president was under fire for his handling of the post-hurricane crisis in Puerto Rico. So back to Twitter it was: He tried to rally fans and deflect blame by characterizing his critics on the island as lazy and entitled — as he put it, “politically motivated ingrates.”
For its part, the gun lobby long ago succeeded in dismantling most barriers preventing people from buying guns for hunting or self-defense. But the NRA gets much of its money from gun makers, and it keeps stoking fears in order to upsell Americans on fancier, more lethal weapons. Perversely, every new mass killing reinforces the message that the government will be coming for Americans’ shotguns; after the Las Vegas massacre, gun stocks surged.
How many deaths will it take for Congress to reconsider not just the country’s gun laws, but also the outsize role the gun industry played in writing them? Computer companies only got serious about security when it was clear that data breaches were costing them money. It took catastrophes like the Cocoanut Grove disaster for cities to upgrade their building codes. It took an epidemic of hijackings for the airline industry to treat airport security as more than an afterthought.
In the aftermath of Las Vegas, several GOP senators have openly mused about banning bump-stock kits, and the NRA itself has called for tighter restrictions. Then again, a more hard-core group, the Gun Owners of America, has come out against any change — and there’s plenty of time for gun lobbyists to slow-roll such legislation.
It’s noteworthy that the shock and outrage over the Las Vegas murders coincided with the announcement of this year’s Nobel Prizes — a reminder that human knowledge keeps advancing, not least because of American brainpower. In contrast, our politics are ever more volatile; they’re subject to machinations that foment hysteria and outrage for short-term gain. There’s a glitch in the software. Recognizing that we’ve been hacked is the first step toward regaining control.