The President Is Missing is a powerful novel authored by Bill Clinton, who served as a U.S. president from 1992 to 2001, and James Patterson, who holds the Guinness world record for the most #1 New York Times bestsellers.
Before I read this book, my expectation was to be thrilled by a fictional story of terrorists abducting the President of the United States, and the show of the U.S. military prowess and intelligence in a search and rescue operation. But that was not entirely the case, I was in for a mind-boggling surprise. I blame my love for U.S. military movies for my initial assumption.
The novel guides its reader to imagine America at its lowest threshold, which was encapsulated in the simple question, “What if everything stopped?”
I want you to imagine two scenarios.
- A. One where America’s military defense; the best in the world, was reduced to a nineteenth-century status, enduring military attacks from Russia, China, or North Korea with 21st-century capacities.
- B. Another where the most powerful nation in the world was reduced to the world’s largest third-world country.
For America, its citizens, the balance of world power, and the peace of the world, the two scenarios are terrifying.
In real-time, the pentagon server; the biggest and supposedly most secure military server in the world was hacked by Garry McKinnon, a Scottish systems administrator for over 13 months, from February 2001 to March 2002.
In one of his hacking expeditions, he posted a message on the military’s website: “Your security is crap.”
The authors painted a picture of how crappy the security of the most powerful nation on earth is, and how easy an experienced computer hacker; armed with great dexterity and patience, can penetrate the pentagon and send America back to the “Dark Ages”.
“Dark Ages”, those words were the terrorists in the novel, they abducted the president slowly, his mind first, then his body. His mind was abducted when Nina; a member of the Sons of Jihad (SOJ); a cyber-terrorist organization sponsored by a recalcitrant small group of Saudi princes, and funded through the Russian Government, whispered the code words “Dark Ages” into the ears of the president’s daughter at an event in Paris; the only way she could get the attention of the most powerful man on earth. Realizing that someone without the security clearance knew such code words and whispered them to his daughter greatly unsettled him and made him suspicious of his inner circle.
Abduction of the president’s body followed when he went in search of Augie; a brilliant hacker working in partnership with Nina and the Sons of Jihad (SOJ), who hacked into the pentagon server and infiltrated it with a wiper virus. Most wiper viruses are designed to just steal data, sell it to a third party and make fast money, or threaten to erase all the data until a ransom is paid.
Unlike most wiper viruses, the virus depicted in this novel is a silent wiper virus that doesn’t want a ransom, it attacks and erases all the software in every computer and all the internet servers in the country. It is like a burglar who enters a house silently through the window and tiptoes through the house with the intent of leaving unnoticed. Within that period, the virus must have infected every technology in the country relying on the internet. A virus that will leave America blind militarily, and economically crippled.
What if everything stopped in America? Everything stopping was not meant figuratively. It meant everything that has access to the internet coming to a halt. I won’t bore you with a complex explication of what it means for everything that has access to the internet to halt.
Concisely, that statement means everything from phones to elevators, grocery-store scanners, trains and bus passes, radios, traffic lights, Credit Card scanners, home alarm systems. Laptop computers will lose all their software, all files, everything erased. Your computer will be nothing but a keyboard and a blank screen.
Electricity would be severely compromised, which means refrigerators. In some cases, heat. Water – clean water in America will quickly become scarce. That means health problems on a massive scale. Who will care for the sick? Hospitals? Will they have the necessary resources to treat you? Surgical operations these days are highly computerized. And they will not have access to any of your prior medical records online. For that matter, will they treat you at all? Do you have health insurance? Says who? A card in your pocket? They won’t be able to look you up and confirm it. Nor will they be able to seek reimbursement from the insurer. And even if they could get in contact with the insurance company, the insurance company won’t know whether you’re its customer. Does it have handwritten lists of its policyholders? No. It’s all on computers. Computers that have been erased.
Visualizing an America without these amenities suddenly doesn’t feel like America anymore. It feels like the American dream turned into a nightmare, right? Fasten your seat belts.
There would be no websites, of course. No e-commerce. Conveyor belts. Sophisticated machinery inside manufacturing plants. Payroll records. Planes will be grounded. Even trains may not operate in most places. Cars, at least any built since 2010 or so, will be affected. Legal records. Welfare records. Law enforcement databases. The ability of local police to identify criminals, to co-ordinate with other states and the federal government through databases – no more.
Bank records. Do you think you have ten thousand dollars in your savings account? Fifty thousand dollars in a retirement account? Do you think you have a pension that allows you to receive a fixed payment every month? Not if computer files and their backups are erased. Do banks have a large wad of cash, wrapped in a rubber band with your name on it, sitting in a vault somewhere? Of course not. It’s all data.
The flow of currency will be suddenly reduced to hand-to-hand transactions in cash. And cash from where? You will not be able to go to your local bank, or your nearest ATM, and withdraw cash, because the bank has no record of you. The impact will inevitably lead to massive unemployment, an enormous reduction in the availability of credit, a recession the likes of which would make the Great Depression in the 1930s look like a momentary hiccup.
This is a wake-up call for America and the rest of the world to reorder their defense spending to reflect the enormous and constantly evolving threats of cyber-attacks.
The progression of mankind, particularly in the area of science and technology, and the interconnection of our human culture with our digital information could turn out to be the bane of modern society. Could the “Internet of Things” be the Achilles’ heel of America?