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Friday, Dec. 31, 2010


A year of living dangerously

By one measure, our world is more peaceful. According to the University of British Columbia's Human Security Center, the number of deaths resulting from armed conflict has plummeted from 95,000 each year in the decade of the 1990s to 17,000 from 2002 to 2008.

Unfortunately, humankind's newfound values have been more than compensated for by nature's malevolence. More than a quarter million people died as a result of natural disasters in 2010, making last year the most deadly in over a generation. More people were killed by natural disasters in 2010 than have been killed in terrorist attacks over the past four decades combined.

Seismologists believe that 2010 was one of the most active years ever, with earthquakes shaking the Rim of Fire with alarming regularity. The biggest killer was the earthquake that struck Haiti in January, which claimed 220,000 lives. A quake in China in April killed nearly 2,700 people. Japan again experienced a number of earthquakes this year, fortunately with few casualties.

A single storm system triggered a historic — statistically, a once-every-100,000-year event — heat wave in Russia and flooding in Pakistan. The combined toll of those two disasters was nearly 17,000 lives. The World Health Organization estimates flooding claimed lives in at least 59 nations this year.

Experts point out that the death toll has risen as a result of human decisions. Earthquakes are increasingly deadly because more people are crowding into urban areas in substandard housing. Flooding takes its toll because more people live in coastal areas and farmers are denuding land, stripping it of natural features that help resist inundation.

Most important, there is man's impact on the climate. This year is slated to be one of the hottest in history, if not the hottest. Nearly 20 countries recorded their hottest day ever. If, as believed, changing climate patterns and hotter weather are producing bigger storms, including bigger snowstorms, it means that human behavior has exacerbated natural weather events.

There are economic losses, too. Swiss Re, the insurance company, estimates that disasters caused $222 billion in economic losses in 2010 (the figure would have been higher if some of the biggest events, such as the Haitian earthquake, had not occurred in desperately poor countries). That figure includes blizzards in the U.S. in the early part of the year, huge snowfalls in China and Russia, and the shutdown of air traffic after the volcanic eruption in Iceland. It does not include the still accumulating costs resulting from the record snow that descended on Europe in December.

At the other end of the spectrum, another man-made threat took on more sharply defined contours this year — the danger posed by the increasing integration of information technologies in our daily lives. Growing reliance on such technologies has not been matched by commensurate attention to ways to make that dependence secure. One factor is sheer laziness. As consumers, we fail to observe rudimentary rules of security, such as using passwords that are not obvious ("password" is a favorite, as is "01234567") or limiting access to information.

We are waking up to the costs of sharing personal information on social networking sites. Carelessness is also evident among companies that acquire data, resulting in regular reports of databases stolen or sold, with vital personal information released to criminals and con men. The WikiLeaks drama of recent weeks is the first in what is certain to be a flood of humiliations of government leaders and officials. Corporations will find themselves similarly exposed. Easy access to information and insufficient attention to security are the culprits.

Also emerging this year was a new form of cyber-attacks, revealed by the Stuxnet virus. Stuxnet targeted operating systems that run complex machinery. In this case, the targets were computers essential to Iran's nuclear programs. Stuxnet introduced anomalies that ultimately disabled the machinery. While opponents of the spread of nuclear weapons may applaud this approach to nonproliferation, cyber security experts warn that similar viruses could be used as weapons of mass disruption. For example, they could take down power stations, power grids or even air traffic control systems. Anything that relies on information technology to operate is likely to be vulnerable.

Nor does the attack have to be that malevolent. Reliance on Internet-based communications means that anything that denies access to the Web can effectively shut down an organization. One such method is distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks — in which a website is overwhelmed by requests for information from other computers — which are occurring with increasing frequency. DDoS attacks have been used to knock human rights and dissident groups off the Internet, or to attack websites that promote Islamic jihad, and even websites like Amazon, MasterCard and PayPal, which responded to the WikiLeaks leaks by halting their affiliation with that organization.

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