Conversations on the final day of this year’s WIRED25 event revolved around the existential mess that has characterized 2020: Covid-19, election integrity, California wildfires. But the experts who came together to share their insights into these problems, and the work they have been doing to confront them, also communicated a sense of genuine optimism.
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Anthony Fauci started off today’s event in conversation with WIRED editor at large Steven Levy. And while Fauci noted some alarming signs—40,000 new US cases each day, an increase in test positivity in some areas—he remains optimistic about an end to the pandemic. He has trust in the vaccine development process, and he thinks we should expect to have proof of a safe, effective vaccine by November or December. But for Fauci, the prospect of a vaccine in the next few months isn’t the only reason to be hopeful. He believes that hope itself is an effective tool in fighting the pandemic. “Despair makes you throw your hands up and say, it doesn’t matter what I do, what’s going to happen is going to happen,” he said. “That is incorrect. It does matter what we do. And if we do it for a while longer, we will look behind us and the outbreak will be behind us, not among us.”
Next, WIRED senior writer Andy Greenberg spoke with Marc Rogers, Nate Warfield, and Ohad Zaidenberg, who cofounded the volunteer group CTI League to protect hospitals and other essential organizations from phishing and ransomware during the pandemic. “It’s almost fair to say that this is a cyber pandemic, because the bad guys, criminal actors, have always exploited big events,” said Rogers. “And there is no bigger event than a global pandemic.” Even when the pandemic ends, however, hospitals, emergency services, and other organizations will still be vulnerable to cyberattacks, and so CTI League is now looking at ways to continue their work going forward.
WIRED senior writer Lily Hay Newman then spoke with another cybersecurity expert, Maddie Stone, who works as a security researcher at Google Project Zero. The goal of Project Zero is to find and eliminate zero-day vulnerabilities—unknown software flaws that could be exploited by hackers. Zero-day vulnerabilities can be difficult to find and use, so hackers deploy them for narrower applications. “They’re really targeted, sophisticated types of attacks, because it takes a lot of expertise to find them and to exploit them,” Stone said. “So they’re usually only used to target high profile, highly valuable targets, such as political dissidents, human rights activists, journalists, things like that.”
Newman stayed online to chat with Ben Adida, the executive director of VotingWorks, which is the only nonprofit maker of US election equipment. Given the complexity of US elections, Adida said, voting machines are a necessity, and they should not be produced by for-profit companies. “We think that elections are the foundation of democracy, and that foundation should be publicly owned,” he said. But despite persistent worries about voting machine hacks and Trump’s constant fear-mongering about voter fraud—including during last night’s presidential debate—Adida believes that the greatest risk to election integrity comes from us. “The biggest concern I have is that a lot of well-meaning folks out there who care about democracy are going to see an alarmist story on their Twitter feed, or in their Facebook feed, and they’re going to say, ‘I need to tell my friends about this,’” he said. “In the process, they become an unwitting participant in this misinformation game of reducing people’s trust in an election outcome.” He left his audience with a stark warning: “If we lose faith in democracy, we lose democracy.”