The internet has produced many marvels. But it is an arena in which crime flourishes and break-ins can be either freelance or state-sponsored. No one knows where it is all heading...
Remember when we partied like it was 1999? The future didn’t look like this, did it? It’s not even two decades on – and yet it feels like another world, even a galaxy far far away and long long ago.
Yes, it was hedonistic, materialistic and shallow and already showed the DNA of much of the culture that now surrounds us – even of terrorism, trolls and Trumps. But there was also a kind of innocence and, though offset by fears, optimism.
There was, in particular, an almost giddy predictive enthusiasm for what digital technology would bring. Apart from faster communications and access to vast amounts of data, information and knowledge, there was also the prospect of interconnectedness at home and at work.
Younger people find it almost shocking to be reminded that there was no Facebook sixteen years ago. It was launched in 2004. And Twitter? It was launched in 2006. And so on.
HACKERS AT WAR
Nobody partying in December 1999 posted their photos on their social media pages because, well, they didn’t have any. In evolutionary terms, the time between then and now is just the blink of an eye. It’s nothing at all. And yet, we can now see that the turn of the century wasn’t just a date, it was a dawn. It was a turning point, a hinge.
It was the end and the beginning. We might not have seen it then, but basically the analogue age was, like, so over and the digital age had truly began. We’re all digitised now. It’s inconceivable to be otherwise, for commerce, travel, communications, the internet of things, research, everything.
But those endless opportunities have downsides after all. Let’s take the attack on Dyn. It sounds like something from Game Of Thrones. But it isn’t. Dyn is a DNS provider in New Hampshire and it was recently the target of a “distributed denial of service” cyberattack which blocked services to users as far away as Europe.
We have already become accustomed to covert cyber warfare between states. There seems little doubt that Chinese hackers have been busy over the last two years and Russian hackers are actively engaged in a global war on many fronts. But the attack on Dyn wasn’t part of any such action. Rather, it seems to have been the work of non-state actors – and that’s a very worrying development.
Rapid expansion of the digital world and proliferation of digitised and connected things make cyber attacks easier to mount and allow many more attackers onto the battlefield.
Think of some of the things we were told were great ideas: being able to switch things on with your phone while on the bus home, connecting up all your sound and vision appliances, having a camera that watches the lane behind your house and sends pictures of foxes to your email address every night of the year.
Great stuff. But they all involve devices having an IP address. And therefore, they can all be infected and used by malware and co-opted into a “distributed zombie network”, creating what some are calling an internet of botnets. And that’s new.
(For the analogues out there, where you see bot read robot, as in sexbot, botnet...)
There will be 21 billion such devices worldwide in 2020. That’s nearly three potential infective agents for every person on the planet. We can’t go back, so a whole new dimension has been added to electronics manufacturing and the tech industry’s future-proofing.
State attackers are already creating a great deal of havoc. But they have limits. Rogues do not. And, while some rogues may be motivated by anti-capitalist or environmentalist sentiments, the same isn’t true of criminals, who are also engaged. Indeed, some banks have, apparently, been storing bitcoins to deal with cyberspace ransom demands in the future.
Many welcomed the leaking of confidential files by Wikileaks over the past few years. The tax affairs of very rich people were laid bare. Those who believe in a free press and in transparency saw this, and the stand made by whistleblowers like Edward Snowden, as enormously important.
But sadly we have to consider the possibility that some of what we have been fed was found and released by state hackers or that some of the lauded agents of transparency have been co-opted by state agencies and should no longer be regarded as even-handed.
The Russians have been especially active. One acknowledges that their release of drug test files hacked from the World Anti-Doping Agency has a certain grim logic. The US and UK tried to isolate Russian athletes, and with justification. There is a doping culture. What the leaks showed was that those in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones and you can’t really argue with that.
They have also been using cyber tactics in the US election to a remarkable degree. The Democratic national committee’s computer systems were hacked last April. Private emails, opposition research and campaign correspondence were stolen. Wikileaks put the emails online, featuring ones that would reflect badly on Hillary Clinton.
Digital watermarks on the files showed the hackers were working for two Russian intelligence services. And they weren’t even working together. Incredibly, both agencies were in there on their own. Like having two burglars at the same time.
Trump even egged them on. At a Florida press conference, he referred to the emails on Clinton’s personal server when she was Secretary of State and said: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’ll find the 30,000 emails that are missing.” Imagine what they might find if they hacked her vacuum cleaner! What if walls could really talk? They soon will! We’ve all got to be vigilant, haven’t we?
That’s the way of the world now. I’m looking at my wi-fi printer and wondering if the printer is looking at me. I can’t help remembering Micheal O’Muircheartaigh describing the Cork hurler Teddy McCarthy about to take a free. “Teddy looks at the ball. The ball looks at Teddy...”
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