Two topics ought to rate persistent headlines in 2010: governmental corruption and cybersecurity.
We know corruption is pervasive, a pan-human affliction, but in the developing world endemic corruption truly robs the present, steals the future and keeps oppressed populations mired in poverty. As it saps fragile economies and sows cynicism, corruption seeds conflict. Corruption in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq has frustrated American and allied war-fighters (and the frustrated allies include Afghanis, Pakistanis and Iraqis). The Mexican government's cartel war is both a war on narcotics traffickers and internal political corruption.
What about cybersecurity? Cybercrime obviously overlaps with certain types of criminal corruption, but the world's increasing dependence on vulnerable digital networks makes deterring computer crime and computer snooping key domestic and international goals.
A recent report from Kenya provides a hideous example of corruption robbing the present and future. The Voice of America reported on Dec. 22 that $1.3 million "disappeared" from a national fund that supports primary school education for Kenyan children. The fund had received almost $100 million "to help pay for textbooks, curriculum development and teacher training until 2010." The theft was discovered in June (likely with a nudge from Britain). Two-dozen officials are "under investigation," but there have been no arrests.
This is more than a sad story about cheating children. Disgust with governmental corruption combined with ethnic distrust added emotional fuel to political violence ignited by Kenya's disputed December 2007 national election. Some 1,200 persons died in the post-election turmoil. Many Kenyans understand the threat. One Kenyan group described the scandal as "so egregious, there could be mass unrest unless the government acts quickly to identify and punish those responsible for the theft."
Al Qaeda's survival strategy relies on corruption. Payoffs to warlords buys protection in Somalia and Pakistan. So do its war plans. A terrorist with financial wherewithal (say, money provided by wealthy Persian Gulf "donors") can buy tips from a corrupt police official or military officer. Who says? The Iraqi government does.
Public anger at governmental corruption undermines political and economic development. This year, the Pakistani government objected to aid restrictions mandated by Congress designed to thwart corruption. The U.S. State Department mangled the diplomacy, but ensuring aid goes into field projects and not Swiss bank accounts is a must. Attacking corruption is vital to winning the war on terror, but that, too, is a long-term struggle.
In December, Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai chaired a conference on combating corruption in his own government and throughout Afghanistan. AFP quoted Mr. Karzai saying: "I know that corruption in our government and society cannot be eliminated overnight. We cannot even eliminate it in years."
Like I said, as a news story, corruption has legs.
Ten observant minutes on a street corner or a college campus illustrates the pervasiveness of personal digital devices. Human beings lead what pop sociologists have called an increasingly "digitally-centered life." It doesn't matter if the device is a mobile phone, laptop computer or digital camera - they all create and share digital data.
Cybercrime and its brother, cyberwarfare, involve stealing data, altering data, denying data or destroying data. Tapping personal phone conversations or e-mails is crime enough, but modern "information age" financial institutions, defense ministries and communications companies absolutely depend on the reliable and secure transmission of digital data.
Electrical power grids also rely on computers, and these computer systems may be vulnerable to cybervandalism. Using a computer virus to knock out a power grid prior to a robbery or even an attack by a terrorist or enemy power also worries cyberdefense experts.
The fears are not theoretical. Bonnie and Clyde were small-change chumps compared to cyberbank thieves. On Dec. 22, the Wall Street Journal reported that the FBI is investigating a "computer security breach" at Citibank. Several "tens of millions of dollars" were filched by hackers who may be "linked to a Russian cybergang."
Though this is still five or six major steps from taking down a nation's banking system (which interests cyberwarriors), and Citi is denying any breach occurred, the story demonstrates the terrible possibilities.
The digitally centered life and digitally centered economy are in the bull's-eye.
Austin Bay is a nationally syndicated columnist.