Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Dark Corollary

Reading about computer security this morning, I realized that malware may play an important role in economic history that is easily overlooked. Consider, again, Robert Skidelsky's abstraction of the basic argument in Niall Ferguson's Ascent of Money book:

Throughout history men have been more ingenious at finding ways to make money than to make things.

We have a tendency to shy away from the possibility that the most ingenious of those men may actually be members of the criminal class. Unfortunately, as another Ferguson, Rik Ferguson, observed at a Westminster eForum, as reported by Toby Wolpe for ZDNet UK, criminals often see advantages in new technologies that the evangelists prefer to overlook. Here are some of Ferguson's remarks:

One of the things that persuades me personally that the cloud is absolutely a viable model and has longevity is that it has already been adopted by criminals. They are the people who are leading-edge adopters of technology that is going to work and going to stick around for a long time.

We already see customers of Google, customers of Amazon, who are criminals and who use those services, among others, to run command-and-control services for botnets, to launch spam campaigns and to host phishing websites. They see the power, the scalability, the availability and, for them, the anonymity that is possible through cloud services and they are using it to its fullest extent.

We are probably socially conditioned to avoid viewing criminals as "leading-edge adopters of technology;" but, when you think of it, criminals are probably more motivated towards innovation than are legitimate businessmen. Criminals face the prospect that law enforcement will always be coming up with new ways to foil them; so criminals are more likely to depart from the status quo than are, say, most delegates at the World Economic Forum. David Simon understood this in his depiction of the criminal classes of Baltimore in The Wire, and he also recognized that innovation can be as risky for criminals as for anyone else. Still, if we really want to understand the nature of innovation, we ought to be looking beyond all those just-so stories that come out of established research laboratories!

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