Information security in Dune

We take a look at information security practices on planet Arrakis.

At first glance, the Dune universe seems IT-deficient. Humanity may be building spaceships, but it relies on the human mind to calculate flight paths. Humans send troops to alien planets but exchange messages through couriers. They colonize other worlds yet live in a feudal society.

What information security is there to talk about? Quite a bit, in fact. It plays a vital role in Frank Herbert’s universe.

Why the state of technology is so poor in the first book

Almost all of the tech oddities in the Dune universe boil down to its blanket prohibition: At some point in its history, humanity encountered a global cyberthreat and took radical action, abandoning the information technologies so familiar to us and banning artificial intelligence and computers.

The first installment in the Dune series briefly touches on the reasons behind the prohibition, and the sequels contain conflicting versions of the story, but the key point is that humans rebelled against and destroyed the machines. With prohibition, possession of a “thinking machine” became a capital offense. The main scripture (the Orange Catholic Bible) states categorically: Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind.

Needing to replace the usual information technologies, humans developed their minds in amazing ways. All sorts of teachings, schools, sects, and orders sprang up, as did humans’ ability to perform complex mental calculations, guide spaceships through folded space, analyze the world, and even influence the minds of others.

What’s more, to manage a civilization scattered throughout different star systems, the leaders of humanity reintroduced monarchical rule, feudalism, and the caste system. Despite the disappearance of computers, however, information — and information security — has maintained its central role in people’s lives.

Mentat as security officer

A Mentat is a human trained to function as a computer, capable of processing huge amounts of information in the mind. For example, in addition to developing military strategy, Dune‘s Thufir Hawat of House Atreides is responsible for:

  • Finding backdoors and vulnerabilities in the castle’s security system;
  • Employee background checks;
  • Risk assessment.

In other words, he performs the role of chief information security officer (CISO). At the same time, being  essentially an organic computer, Hawat also functions as a living security engine, analyzing all threat signs and issuing verdicts (being paranoid, he also throws up the occasional false positive). Interestingly, judging by the First Law of Mentat, as quoted by Paul Atreides, he works on behavioral analysis algorithms: “A process cannot be understood by stopping it. Understanding must move with the flow of the process, must join it and flow with it.”

Information exchange tools

In the absence of computers, radio communication and old-fashioned dispatches have become the primary means of information exchange. Neither method is particularly secure; the book describes several techniques characters use to protect their communication channels. It additionally mentions a number of secure information exchange methods for face-to-face meetings in the presence of potential adversaries.

Radio communication

Today, encryption can make radio exchanges relatively secure (if someone eavesdrops, they will not understand a word), but in the world of Dune, without “thinking machines,” information has to be encrypted manually. In particular, the Atreides have a “battle language” — a system of verbal messages known to the Duke’s soldiers.

It’s not entirely reliable. After all, the more widely a secret language is used, the more likely an enemy is to crack it — especially given House Harkonnen’s executioners’ widespread use of outmoded cryptanalysis.

Physical media

Exchanging dispatches is a method whose weaknesses have been known since ancient times — a courier can get turned or captured, or simply fail to arrive — but even its vulnerabilities can become an advantage. The Harkonnens, for example, periodically arrange for their messengers to get caught and supply enemies with misinformation.

The book makes at least one mention of a dispatch self-destruct system that uses a capsule to corrode the material of a message’s carrier. The Bene Gesserit Organization also has a secret language of dots that doesn’t even look like information to the uninitiated.

Information security for in-person meetings

Dune describes two means of securing in-person encounters. First, the Atreides use a system of secret signs for exchanging fairly large amounts of information right under the enemy’s nose. Second, a “cone of silence” is installed in the palace of Baron Harkonnen. It distorts human voices, letting people speak without fear of outside ears. How this technology works, the author does not divulge.

The human factor

Because “information technologies” in Dune have migrated into the heads of the Mentats, the Navigators, the Bene Gesserit sisters, and other strange beings, the human factor is even more critical than it is in the real world, today. After all, Dune has abandoned the algorithms that could potentially detect human error or malicious insider intentions. Here, Herbert’s predictions are nothing if not pessimistic: Individuals and entire factions scheme, betray, and sell out; they infiltrate spy groups and extract information by torture. Moreover, the Bene Gesserit sisters possess the power of Voice, a method of verbal manipulation that can force people to act against their will.

Imperial Conditioning, a Hippocratic Oath–type development of the Suk Medical School, offered some hope by preventing, at least in theory, Suk doctors from harming their patients. But the Harkonnens found a way to break this conditioning through psychological pressure caused by having a loved one taken hostage.

We’re eager to see how Denis Villeneuve conveys all that on screen. It’s quite possible that his version of Frank Herbert’s world won’t be too bad as far as infosec goes. David Lynch’s 1984 effort saw fit to play pretty fast and loose with the original source, and the creators of the new film may have followed suit.

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