February 21, 2024

An oil tanker ploughs into a tourist beach. Planes fall from the sky. Driverless cars run amok. The internet fails and the mobile network dies. Feral instincts take over as people fight for food, water and medicine amid the ruins of civilisation.

That is the nightmare vision depicted in Leave The World Behind, Netflix‘s recent hit film starring Julia Roberts and Ethan Hawke as a couple battling societal breakdown when the technology that underpins civilisation collapses.

It’s fictional, but it touches on deep-seated, real-life fears.

The film is produced by Michelle and Barack Obama‘s company, Higher Ground. The ex-president was closely involved in shaping the plot, which dramatises many of the cyber-security issues on which he was briefed during his eight years in the White House.

For our 21st-century lives are almost entirely dependent on complex technologies that many do not understand — and that can so easily be exploited by our enemies.

Maintaining a car, for example, was previously a job for any competent motorist and their local mechanic. Now our vehicles are computers on wheels, their inner workings a mystery.

A scene from Leave The World Behind. The film is produced by Michelle and Barack Obama’s company, Higher Ground

A nightmare vision of the future is depicted in Leave The World Behind, Netflix's recent hit film starring Julia Roberts and Ethan Hawke as a couple battling societal breakdown when the technology that underpins civilisation collapses

A nightmare vision of the future is depicted in Leave The World Behind, Netflix’s recent hit film starring Julia Roberts and Ethan Hawke as a couple battling societal breakdown when the technology that underpins civilisation collapses

We used to navigate with paper maps and landmarks. But with his car’s satnav out of action, Ethan Hawke’s character Clay Sandford is unable even to find his way to the nearby town.

Our telephone system used to run on sturdy copper wires, with handsets you could fix with a screwdriver. Now it is a branch of cyberspace.

So, too, is finance. Remember when a credit card’s embossed number left an imprint on a paper slip? Not any more. Our payment system depends wholly on electronic encryption.

What use is cash in the modern world? In the film, with the internet gone, it becomes a prized asset.

If the technologies we rely on break down, many of us will be as helpless as Hawke’s Clay Sandford. ‘I am a useless man,’ he howls, as the crutch of technology is kicked from underneath him.

A media studies professor, Clay is perhaps the epitome of modern professional cluelessness, bereft of the hands-on skills needed in a post-apocalyptic world where only the fittest can survive. A world in which oil, gas and electricity supplies have ceased, in which the taps have run dry, where supermarkets are empty, looted shells.

In this wasteland, communication is only face-to-face, the fastest form of transport is a push-bike and modern healthcare is a distant memory. Our electronic devices, once indispensable, are no more useful than paperweights.

So could it really happen? The harsh truth is that modern life is perilously fragile.

We are just one weekly shop, one tank of petrol, away from helplessness, starvation and death. How did we become so vulnerable?

The internet was created so that academic computers could connect with one another. Today, it is the central nervous system of our civilisation. It has brought untold benefits to our lives and the global economy — but our failure to think about security means that this miraculous progress has come with dangerous flaws.

Mahershala Ali as G.H. in a scene from Leave The World Behind. The ex-president was closely involved in shaping the plot, which dramatises many of the cyber-security issues on which he was briefed during his eight years in the White House

Mahershala Ali as G.H. in a scene from Leave The World Behind. The ex-president was closely involved in shaping the plot, which dramatises many of the cyber-security issues on which he was briefed during his eight years in the White House 

It is often hard, sometimes impossible, to identify other people with whom you are dealing online. This leaves the internet wide open to abuse from pranksters, fraudsters, terrorists, spies and hostile states such as North Korea, Iran, Russia and China. And you don’t need to turn to Hollywood to see what this means in practice. Ordinary instances abound.

For a start, when we receive an email, we cannot be sure that it is genuine. ‘Spoofing’ a sender’s address is child’s play. So is creating a bogus website. This is a boon to fraudsters and other crooks who try to steal our money or personal information.

Another example is the ‘Hi, Mum’ messages in which ‘children’ claim to have lost their phones and need help from a parent in paying an urgent bill. In fact, the money goes to a fraudster.

These particular scams are so increasingly sophisticated that criminals are now using artificial intelligence ‘deepfakes’ to mimic the voice of their victim’s loved one. Yet fraud is just a small part of this sinister universe.

On a far bigger scale is ransomware, in which attackers scramble vital databases to extort money from victims.

Such attacks are crude but effective. They typically begin when someone unwisely clicks a link in an email. That enables ‘malware’ — malevolent software — to infect the victim’s computer and its connected networks.

Crooks will, for a price, then supply an electronic key that unscrambles the vital data. The ransom payment is, of course, made in untraceable cryptocurrency. The attackers do not care if they are putting careers, happiness, health or even lives at risk. They are interested only in financial gain.

Last October, one such attack crippled the British Library. The ‘Rhysida’ cyber-gang claimed responsibility and leaked private employee data — including passports and addresses — while demanding Bitcoin cryptocurrency to the value of £600,000.

Hospitals and local authorities are also common targets due to the sensitivity of the information they store. In 2020, Redcar and Cleveland Borough Council resorted to using pen and paper after ransomware froze its files. And then, on another scale altogether, are the terrorists and hostile states who use similar software for political gain.

Ultimately, the full-scale societal collapse depicted in Leave The World Behind is — from a technological standpoint — somewhat overblown.

Myha'la as Ruth and Mahershala Ali as G.H. Cr: JoJo Whilden in Leave The World Behind

Myha’la as Ruth and Mahershala Ali as G.H. Cr: JoJo Whilden in Leave The World Behind

But as Ciaran Martin, an Oxford University professor formerly at GCHQ notes, attackers do not need to break into the sophisticated control systems that run our critical infrastructure — water, power grids, sewerage, phones, the internet. Instead, they can more easily cripple the administrative side of modern life.

For example, in 2017 Russian ransomware ‘NotPetya’ caused chaos in Ukraine before spilling around the world, nearly wiping out the computer system at Maersk, one of the world’s biggest shipping companies.

North Korea, meanwhile, caused catastrophic damage at Sony Pictures in 2014.

This was to punish the media company for a satirical film depicting an assassination attempt on the regime’s leader, Kim Jong Un. As well as wiping databases, Pyongyang leaked Sony’s confidential files, including emails containing unflattering remarks about the temperament and ethics of some A-list Hollywood stars.

Russia used a similar tactic to derail Hillary Clinton’s 2016 electoral campaign by publishing incendiary private messages that proved politically devastating.

For example, campaign staffers, including chairman John Podesta, had their email accounts hacked, and it was suggested that Clinton had been privy to audience questions before television debates took place.

State-run attackers have even more sophisticated arsenals. The U.S. and Israel developed a tool called Stuxnet that allegedly took ten coders three years to create.

The software was used to infect the centrifuges at the heart of Iran’s nuclear weapons programmes, making the fragile components spin irregularly, causing severe damage and leaving them wrecked.

Netflix’s Leave The World Behind, and the 2020 novel by Rumaan Alam on which it is based, avoids any specifics about the nature of the attack that dooms its central characters. Viewers are left guessing whether the perpetrators are terrorists, a hostile state or even conspirators within America.

And that is an important point. Attributing cyber-attacks can be hard. What looks like petty cyber-crime can, in fact, be an industrial-scale enterprise run by a terrorist group, a criminal gang or the North Korean regime.

Ethan Hawke as Clay, Julia Roberts as Amanda and Mahershala Ali as G.H. CR: JoJo Whilden in Leave The World Behind

Ethan Hawke as Clay, Julia Roberts as Amanda and Mahershala Ali as G.H. CR: JoJo Whilden in Leave The World Behind

Even when the guardians of our security know the source of a cyber-attack, they may be reluctant to give details. Unlike armed conflict, the public rarely know the truth about who or what is behind an attack. The French authorities, for example, remain tight-lipped about a devastating cyber-attack on a leading television network, TV5Monde, in 2015, when all 12 of its stations were taken off air by hackers — although British spooks are in no doubt that Russia was the perpetrator.

On Boxing Day, less than two weeks ago, the vital GPS satellite positioning system in the Baltic Sea region was disrupted. Again, the likely culprit was the Kremlin, says Elisabeth Braw, a leading expert in these ‘grey zone’ security attacks. But Nato countries in the region are saying nothing.

Thankfully, commercial shipping and aviation survived the GPS disruption.

And critical infrastructure here in Britain is well protected. A breakdown of our air traffic control system last year — caused by an accident, not an attack — led only to inconvenience, cost and delay. ‘We get annoyed by technical glitches but actual physical harm is rare,’ says Professor Ciaran Martin. But in our private lives, as so many scams and frauds have exposed, we are more vulnerable.

Perhaps we should follow the example of American Doomsday ‘preppers’ by building our own bunkers, complete with hydroponic terrariums — small glasshouses — to grow food, generators and solar panels, independent water supplies, air purification systems, gold coins and a year’s supply of canned and dried food.

Indeed, Netflix’s drama ends with the Sandfords’ daughter Rose abandoning her family to hunker down in just such a space.

If we were to go down this route, some level of preparation would be prudent. A battery-powered torch and radio, some food and drink, first-aid and essential medicines, warm clothing, a ‘cash stash’ and similar necessities would be wise purchases. But mental readiness is just as crucial.

North Korea caused catastrophic damage at Sony Pictures in 2014. This was to punish the media company for a satirical film depicting an assassination attempt on the regime's leader, Kim Jong Un

North Korea caused catastrophic damage at Sony Pictures in 2014. This was to punish the media company for a satirical film depicting an assassination attempt on the regime’s leader, Kim Jong Un

Russia used a similar tactic to derail Hillary Clinton's 2016 electoral campaign by publishing incendiary private messages that proved politically devastating

Russia used a similar tactic to derail Hillary Clinton’s 2016 electoral campaign by publishing incendiary private messages that proved politically devastating

When a ransomware attack in May 2021 crippled the billing system at Colonial Pipeline, a fuel infrastructure company in the U.S., the firm briefly halted operations. The effect on customers should have been minimal. But selfish panic-buying triggered a serious shortage.

‘It doesn’t take much for people to start behaving extremely badly,’ says Professor Martin. Just think back to Britain’s loo roll shortage in the early days of the Covid pandemic in 2020. There was no shortage, but customer stockpiling gave the illusion of chaos and spread the paranoia.

This mental point is where Netflix’s thriller really excels. The best drama is not the technological chaos — but the chaos inside the characters’ heads. Stress and fear quickly expose their prejudice and paranoia and corrode their relationships.

It is here that I worry Britain lags behind other countries.

We need to boost not just our physical preparedness against our enemies, but also our ‘cognitive resilience’ — our ability to make sense of unexpected events and to react to them sensibly. Countries such as Finland, which has in Russia a large and bellicose neighbour on its doorstep, have for decades educated the public and trained their decision-makers in these techniques.

Better resilience pays off whether you are dealing with technological breakdown, natural disasters, terrorist attacks or even a pandemic.

Belatedly, Britain is moving in the same direction. A version of the top-secret ‘national risk assessment’ is now publicly available, highlighting scores of threats from hostile-state activity to natural disasters and pandemics.

A new emergency alerts system introduced last year allows the government to send messages to millions of people’s mobile phones in a crisis. And a Resilience Forum brings together public, private and voluntary groups to plan ‘whole of society’ emergency responses.

The group would do well to watch Leave The World Behind. Experts might pick holes in the plot, but if the cast’s psychological plight prompts new thinking about our own vulnerabilities, Britons will owe Julia Roberts and her co-stars a debt of gratitude.

Edward Lucas is the author of Spycraft Rebooted: How Technology Is Changing Espionage.