It’s About Decorum

It’s About Decorum

“Now even our meat is being cyberattacked,” a Bloomberg Opinion piece lamented.

No. Oh, please God no. Anything but the meat.

The linked post is actually worth reading. It’s penned in a sarcastic cadence and it’s good for (several) laughs.

But some folks don’t think the JBS hack which, according to some reports, briefly knocked out at least 20% of America’s beef capacity, was all that funny. Thankfully for the meatoholics among you, the world’s largest producer said the “vast majority” of its facilities will be operational starting Wednesday.

REvil, or Sodinokibi, a hacking group with links to Russia, was apparently responsible. A separate Bloomberg piece published Wednesday described the fleeting chaos: “The shutdowns upended agricultural markets and raised concerns about food security as hackers increasingly target critical infrastructure.”

Forgive me, but this borders on the absurd. I realize everyone needs computers and that large, complex enterprises operating across borders can’t function without sophisticated networks. I also understand that it’s not just logistics. I imagine everything from turning on the lights to running conveyor belts to human resources management is all conducted on a network.

But people were successfully producing beef and pork at scale long before the advent of computers. Sure, we’re all vulnerable to malicious cyber activity in the modern world. Do we need to be this vulnerable, though? Should it be the case that something as ostensibly straightforward as killing cows and packaging their flesh is amenable to being hijacked remotely by Russian hackers?

Folks cited industry concentration on Wednesday. And maybe that’s part of the problem. Diversifying production via a large group of much smaller suppliers would, by definition, make the supply chain more resilient to problems at one supplier, but perhaps just as importantly, I imagine at least some small suppliers might be more resilient to these kinds of tactics by virtue of not needing to rely on much that’s “hackable” (if you will).

I don’t know. The world clearly has a supply chain problem. And it’s multi-faceted. It can’t be fixed with supply chain nationalism. Not when foreign hackers can commandeer a crucial fuel pipeline from thousands of miles away and demand untraceable ransom payments in cryptocurrency.

Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Moscow and Washington are in “direct contact” about the JBS hack. Not surprisingly, the Kremlin claimed it doesn’t know anything about the incident. Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday it’s “premature” to speculate on any kind of “cooperation” between Russia and the US when it comes to cybersecurity. [Insert Trump joke of your choice.]

“JBS USA and Pilgrim’s [Pride] are a critical part of the food supply chain and we recognize our responsibility to our team members, producers and consumers to resume operations as soon as possible,” Andre Nogueira, JBS USA CEO, said. “Our systems are coming back online and we are not sparing any resources to fight this threat,” Nogueira added, noting that the company has “cybersecurity plans in place to address these types of issues and we are successfully executing those plans.”

When it comes to Russia’s culpability, I’d note that apologists for Putin habitually dance around common sense (and not just on this issue either). It’s about decorum. Russia isn’t North Korea. But it may as well be when it comes to the obstinance on display in the face of flagrant examples of state-tolerated (if not state-sponsored) maliciousness.

This long ago crossed the threshold into the ridiculous. Putin is a cartoon villain. The Kremlin won’t take any kind of responsibility for anything, even when what’s tacitly being asked is that Moscow release some totally nebulous statement pledging to punish bad actors operating from Russia.

China makes those kinds of vacuous proclamations all the time, not because Xi intends to be a good international citizen, but because he recognizes that vacuous pledges are required of nations that want to be taken seriously. The US makes dozens of vacuous pledges spanning all manner of subjects from climate to human rights every, single week. America rarely keeps any of the promises inherent in those pledges, but that’s not the point. Again, it’s about decorum. Everyone’s a bad actor, the US included. But parading your own nefariousness is self-defeating for all but the most desperate states.

In a testament to this dynamic, Peskov on Wednesday said “I don’t know anything about this,” when asked about the JBS hack. “If the Americans bring any accusations, clearly, they will be processed in a rather rapid manner.” Like a cow scheduled for slaughter, I guess. At a plant that’s actually working.

There’s a difference between denying the substance of the accusations (as Beijing furiously does whenever anyone uses the word “genocide” in the same sentence as “Xinjiang”) and playing the role of the panting Rottweiler who pretends to have no idea what happened to the living room when you walk in the front door and find your couch destroyed.

“These types of attacks are more normal than we think,” Dalmo Veras, chief executive of a Brazilian cyber security group said, in remarks to FT. “The worst ones are those that we don’t even know about.”

Right. But the ones we do (know about) almost always emanate from one of four places: Russia, Iran, China or North Korea. Two of those are pariah states. One of them is an oligarchic, rickety remnant of a bipolarity that died decades ago. The other one is China.


11 thoughts on “It’s About Decorum

  1. To answer your technological question, is it possible to not have all these systems run by computer? The short answer is no. What has happened over decades is the computer control of almost all machinery. In businesses and industry the same types of computers with forced interoperability have been the norm. This interoperability enhances productivity.

    However in that statement lies probably the most powerful thing we can do to minimize the effect of computer takeover. That is to design less interoperability or design interoperability that does not allow anything but a secure connection between them. One Way data flows are one possibility.

    I believe is only just a matter of time when all computer architecture will be firewalled into various canisters such that a system-wide breach is impossible. This is already used in Russian critical computer systems just a matter of expanding it to all systems that can interact with the outside world.

    1. It’s certainly possible to produce food without computers. Perhaps not at scale, but I can promise you that the folks down here at the local farmer’s market won’t be the subject of any cyberattack that cripples their capacity to grow the heirlooms I like.

      1. That may seem like a silly thing to say, but take a step back and ask what’s sillier: My statement or the notion that humanity’s capacity to feed itself is now contingent on computers. I’d submit that the second statement is far sillier.

        1. What axiomatic said. It’s about cost and scale when you got 7B of us. If we were to blissfully cull our numbers significantly, we could probably get grass fed beef of high quality locally sourced for everyone… 🙂

          1. There’s a solid argument to be made that the Agricultural Revolution was actually a terrible mistake that made humans progressively more miserable.

            From “Sapiens“:

            Think for a moment about the Agricultural Revolution from the viewpoint of wheat. Ten thousand years ago wheat was just a wild grass, one of many, confined to a small range in the Middle East. Suddenly, within just a few short millennia, it was growing all over the world. According to the basic evolutionary criteria of survival and reproduction, wheat has become one of the most successful plants in the history of the earth.

            In areas such as the Great Plains of North America, where not a single wheat stalk grew 10,000 years ago, you can today walk for hundreds upon hundreds of kilometers without encountering any other plant. Worldwide, wheat covers about 2.25 million square kilometers of the globe’s surface, almost ten times the size of Britain. How did this grass turn from insignificant to ubiquitous?

            Wheat did it by manipulating Homo sapiens to its advantage. This ape had been living a fairly comfortable life hunting and gathering until about 10,000 years ago, but then began to invest more and more effort in cultivating wheat. Within a couple of millennia, humans in many parts of the world were doing little from dawn to dusk other than taking care of wheat plants. It wasn’t easy. Wheat demanded a lot of them. Wheat didn’t like rocks and pebbles, so Sapiens broke their backs clearing fields. Wheat didn’t like sharing its space, water, and nutrients with other plants, so men and women labored long days weeding under the scorching sun. Wheat got sick, so Sapiens had to keep a watch out for worms and blight. Wheat was defenseless against other organisms that liked to eat it, from rabbits to locust swarms, so the farmers had to guard and protect it. Wheat was thirsty, so humans lugged water from springs and streams to water it. Its hunger even impelled Sapiens to collect animal feces to nourish the ground in which wheat grew.

            The body of Homo sapiens had not evolved for such tasks. It was adapted to climbing apple trees and running after gazelles, not to clearing rocks and carrying water buckets. Human spines, knees, necks, and arches paid the price. Studies of ancient skeletons indicate that the transition to agriculture brought about a plethora of ailments, such as slipped disks, arthritis, and hernias. Moreover, the new agricultural tasks demanded so much time that people were forced to settle permanently next to their wheat fields. This completely changed their way of life. We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us. The word “domesticate” comes from the Latin domus, which means “house.” Who’s the one living in a house? Not the wheat. It’s the Sapiens.

            How did wheat convince Homo sapiens to exchange a rather good life for a more miserable existence? What did it offer in return?

      2. How many billions in subsidies are we willing to commit to sponsor the ongoing inefficiencies inherent to diffuse supply chains? It’s a hell of a price to pay for an insurance policy.

        Given that this policy gels with my political and economic beliefs – big is bad, specialization breeds weakness, distributed is safer for democracy than centralized – it’s an easy sell, to me. I doubt it can be sold to Congresscritters or voters on the merits of small-business friendliness. Perhaps if it were cloaked in nationalistic sentiment and/or touted as a green initiative.

        Let’s assume that fiscal money printing is feasible and sustainable up to some large maximum; even then, how to convince policy makers to “burn” dollars on an insurance policy vs. investing in infrastructure, education, and so forth?

        Maybe I’m just being fatalistic; if supply-side antics can be sold twice, then maybe it can be done with a supply-chain diversity initiative.

        1. “How many billions in subsidies are we willing to commit to sponsor the ongoing inefficiencies inherent to diffuse supply chains?” Not enough it seems. From systems theory we know that the desire to minimize (streamline) system structures is limited by something called the “Law of Requisite Variety” which essentially states that to keep an adaptive system from collapse as a result of negative external changes, the system needs to have sufficient variety (diversity) in its resources to counter the negative externality. The cost of chip shortages in the car business has not been insignificant. As more and more “things” are tied to the internet the absolute risk of a loss of function will rise. JIT inventory practice is valuable but the lower the backup, the more costly is the risk of shortages. More info on this topic can be found at:

          The Architecture of Simplicity
          Danny Miller
          The Academy of Management Review
          Vol. 18, No. 1 (Jan., 1993), pp. 116-138 (23 pages)
          Published By: Academy of Management
          The Academy of Management Review

      3. H., great commentary and I tend to agree with the tone. However, well before “modern” robotics engineering, the programmable logic controller (PLC for short) was invented in the sixties and quickly became a very popular solution in many types of factory automation.

        (And: roller coasters. I – very selfishly – hope roller coasters never get hacked.)

        What I find amazing is that anything from a private automation process was accessible from the internet. I’ve seen suggestions for imposing fines for getting hacked. Against: just what we need, more legislation. Pro: it prioritizes managing a potential business cost.

  2. But parading your own nefariousness is self-defeating for all but the most desperate states

    Sure, Machiavel said as much a handful of hundred years ago. OTOH, I’m so grateful for states/organisations that stop trying to spin everything under the sun and talk straight.

    As you pointed out, anyone with an active brain cell knows what’s going on. Which makes me ponder. Who is the decorum for? Political hobbyists like ourselves tend to be smart and thus slightly cynical. We’re not taken in by silly declarations on climate change and human rights. But the hoi polloi? Well, they don’t follow the play-by-play nature of politics. They have only the crudest sense of who’s who and who does what and its mostly mood affiliation anyhow.

    So on whom does decorum works? Who cares about it?

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