Unlikely but just about plausible

I’ve been recently been working with the Centre for Risk Studies in Cambridge on some extreme scenarios: one-in-200, or even less likely events. It’s been an interesting challenge, not least because it’s very difficult to make things extreme enough. We find ourselves saying that the step in the scenario that we’re working would never actually happen, because not everything would go wrong in the right way. But of course that’s just the point: we’re looking at swiss cheese situations.

A couple of times we’ve dreamt up something that we thought was really unlikely, only for something remarkably similar to turn up in the news. We came up with the idea that data could be irretrievably corrupted, and a few days later found ourselves reading about a Xerox copier that irretrievably corrupted the images.

So I was really interested to read a story about a security researcher who’s apparently found a really nasty piece of malware — except it’s not clear if he’s making the whole thing up.

People following this story fall into a few different camps. Many believe everything he says — or at least most of it — is true. Others think he’s perpetrating a huge social engineering experiment, to see what he can get the world and the media to swallow. A third camp believes he’s well-intentioned, but misguided due to security paranoia nurtured through the years.

The thing is, the individual pieces of the scenario are all just about possible. But is it possible for them all to happen in a connected way? For the holes in the swiss cheese to line up?

The absolutely amazing thing about this story is that nearly everything Ruiu reveals is possible, even the more unbelievable details. Ruiu has also been willing to share what forensic evidence he has with the public (you can download some of the data yourself) and specialized computer security experts.

Where developments start getting preposterous, no matter how much leeway you give him, is how many of the claims are unbelievable (not one, not two, but all of them) and why much of the purported evidence is supposedly modified by the bad guys after he releases it, thus eliminating the evidence. The bad guys (whoever they are) are not only master malware creators, but they can reach into Ruiu’s public websites and remove evidence within images after he has posted it. Or the evidence erases itself as he’s copying it for further distribution.

Again, this would normally be the final straw of disbelief, but if the malware is as devious as described and does exist, who’s to say the bad guys don’t have complete control of everything he’s posting? If you accept all that Ruiu is saying, there’s nothing to prove it hasn’t happened.

I don’t know. I haven’t looked into the details at all, and probably wouldn’t understand them even if I did. But there’s certainly a lesson here for those of us developing unlikely scenarios: it’s difficult to make things up that are more unlikely than things that actually happen.

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1 Comment

  1. Speaking of “extreme” scenarios that in retrospect turn out to be entirely plausible…

    I once worked for a company in which the document-generating devices in a certain department were all lined up neatly in a row, on a single table. There was a printer, a copier, a fax, and a shredder. I walked past it one day and thought: “That’s nice. You can see the whole document life cycle laid out there, from birth, through reproduction, migration, and finally death.”

    I didn’t think about it much until a couple weeks later. There was a big sign on the shredder, proclaiming in bold letters: THIS IS NOT THE FAX!

    In prospect, it must have seemed a 1 in a 1000 shot that somebody would accidentally shred their precious document instead of faxing it. In retrospect, putting 2 beige boxes right next to each other on the table, next to the coffee stand so people would be distracted by collegial chit-chat made this sort of bungling almost inevitable.

    Context matters!

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