New Zealand Listener


From virus-ravaged central London, the rebel Tory MP Sir Oliver Letwin, one-time UK Cabinet member and Minister for Brexit, is breathily talking into his smartphone about a bigger threat to humanity than Covid-19.

What if the virus wasn’t targeting humans but instead infecting the digital networks we rely on for our essential services – electricity, communication, water, hospitals and transport.

The saving grace of our current Government-mandated Level-4 lockdown is that essential services continue to function. We work from home hunched over our laptops making glitchy internet video calls to our colleagues. Hospitals remain open, albeit clogged with patients reporting flu-like symptoms and the sharemarket continues to trade, even if KiwiSaver investors would probably favour a lengthy trading halt.

The coronavirus disease will continue to spread and may kill thousands who otherwise would have lived. But in Apocalypse How? Technology and the Threat of Disaster, a book that’s both parable and pointed critique of society’s inability to adequately deal with risk, Letwin envisages a much shorter, sharper shock that could ultimately prove far more catastrophic.


The growing problem, he says, is our reliance on converged networks that are increasingly complex in nature and more interconnected than ever. The fibre optic network and 5G mobile base stations that deliver increasingly fast internet access are also the basis of the next generation of smart electricity grids, remotely controlled power stations and intelligent transport networks.

We got a flavour of that vulnerability this week when lockdown measures led to a 350% spike in call traffic on Spark’s network, overloading it and leading to patchy phone service. The telco, which recently focused on boosting capacity

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