Internet Threat 10: Swine Flu
Hamthrax. Wilburculosis. Whatever you want to call it, swine flu may do a lot of harm this year – to the Internet. The Government Accountability Office released a report last week outlining the possibilities if millions of schoolkids are home from school playing online games, while millions of workers are trying to work from home. The GAO says it doesn’t want everyone’s Internet transactions to slow down but that private Internet providers don’t have measures to prioritize pushing through work traffic while making video-game-hungry kids wait their turn. In any case, if millions of people are stuck at home sick this winter, the increase in traffic will be noticed by the rest of us.
Internet Threat 9: Solar Flares
Solar flares, giant jolts of explosive energy from the sun, may not really bring about the end of the world like in the movie 2012, but in the past they have wreaked havoc on satellites and electrical systems. In 1989 in Quebec, a giant swath of the power grid went dark due to intense activity in the magnetosphere. Theoretically, the same thing could happen and threaten our Internet connections. In the future, when we humans venture out into the interplanetary beyond, we may suffer from informational blackouts because we’ll be unable to transmit any signals, not to mention the machine-killing properties of radiation. In addition, astronauts could be in danger from the high-energy particles emitted during a flare. NASA has acknowledged this possibility, and put together some information here.
Internet Threat 8: Russian Mafia
The Russian mafia has taken to cybercrime like cement shoes to the Hudson River. Botnet attacks like the ones launched on the Republic of Georgia last year have been traced to rings of Russia mobsters, according to security experts (http://news.cnet.com/8301-13639_3-10312708-42.html). What’s more, these rings of cyber-bullies are nearly impossible to pin down – every time they get caught somewhere, they pop up doing something slightly different. This news story describes some of the tactics: organized crime needs money, and if money is found in breaking the Internet, they’ll do it. Such attacks are on the rise, according to a recent Microsoft security report. With more and more computers getting online all the time, Russian badguys could cause major damage to the Internet in the future by enslaving zombie computers to do their dirty work for them.
Internet Threat 7: Viruses
Computer viruses are nasty things – and relatively recent inventions. The first recognized virus was called Brain and it reared its ugly head in 1986. One of the worst viruses was the infamous ILOVEYOU in 2000. ILOVEYOU was notable for being one of the first viruses to trick users into opening a file, which in this case claimed to be a sweet, sweet love letter. In reality, the file was a script that sent mountains of junk mail and deleted thousands of files. One estimate holds that 10 percent of all computers were affected, to a cost of $5.5 billion. ILOVEYOU, too! Sheesh. In the past nine years, there have been dozens more viruses, and there will continue to be more – endangering the future of the Internet, especially when people start aggregating important information online.
Internet Threat 6: Online Flashmobs
If everyone in the world goes and pounds specific servers with traffic, the Internet can nearly break. This happened back in 1999, when Victoria’s Secret held the first simultaneous Internet-broadcast and live fashion show. 1.5 million viewers were able to tune in, but many more were unable to reach the site, and users around the world noted a slowdown in speeds. In more recent memory, Michael Jackson’s death caused such a flurry of information-seeking activities online that it overwhelmed AIM, Twitter, and websites like TMZ and the LA Times. Even Google searchers typing in Jackson’s name found themselves with long delays.
Internet Threat 5: False Information
Did you know that Jeff Goldblum and Betty White totally died the same day as Michael Jackson? Hmmm, neither did I, but if it was tweeted it must be correct – right guys? Guys? One of the problems with information-seeking on the Internet is also one of the inherent qualities: all information is given nearly equal footing. Most people believe the Internet is the most reliable primary information source – 37 percent of them, compared with 17 percent believing newspapers and 16 percent believing television. The problem is that not all information is created equally, and many Internet users don’t seem to know that. What’s more, reputable sources are more often putting up pay walls around good information (like the Washington Post) while bad information remains free (thanks Jenny McCarthy).
Internet Threat 4: Goin’ Rogue… States
Earlier this year, U.S. officials admitted that our power system had been hacked into by spies and software programs may have been placed inside. The Pentagon has spent $100 million in the past six months repairing cyber damage and trying to determine who exactly is at work inside the US systems, which include sewage and water as well as power. The results of such hacking can be nasty as well as dangerous: In 2000, a disgruntled employee rigged a computerized control system at a water-treatment plant in Australia, releasing more than 200,000 gallons of sewage into parks, rivers and the grounds of a Hyatt hotel. Officials are sure that certain countries … <cough North Korea cough> have been trying to tap into different grids, and bringing down the power would certainly screw with our Internet.
Internet Threat 3: Shoddy code
It’s not the most glamorous of subjects, but programmers have tough jobs. And when they make mistakes building code, bad things can happen. Holes in software, old code, or untested code are dangerous to the future of the Internet. Some of the protocols for the Internet were created back in the 1970s – so it shouldn’t surprise people when Dam Kaminsky’s lab showed a huge security hole in the DNS system last year. The vulnerability meant that attackers could easily impersonate any website — banking sites, Google, Gmail and other web mail websites — to attack unsuspecting users. While a patch has been created for that specific hole, others invariably exist – and could threaten the Internet.
Internet Threat 2: Governments
Our government has some big decisions ahead of it about how to balance innovation and regulation of the aging and sometimes-overloaded Internet. It’s not that we don’t think that the government is able to make good decisions – smart people are working on these issues and there are many creative solutions being suggested. But governments in general can be a threat to the Internet if they do not have their citizens’ best interests in mind. China, for example, has the Golden Shield Project, also known as the Great Firewall, which blocks lots of sites that have news or information critical of the government. With the largest online population of any country at 338 million, the future of the Internet may be: as goes China, so goes the world. Let’s hope for good governance around the world, from Boston to Beijng.
Internet Threat 1: Everyone Using it
It takes a lot of intelligent people to make up for the fact that there are just millions, or billions, of bozos online. This final threat to the Internet encapsulates many of the previous ones -- viruses wouldn’t propogate if users didn’t click on email attachments, bad information wouldn’t be out there if there weren’t people ready to spread lies, and productivity wouldn’t dip if people weren’t so intrigued by the exploits of a cat who can play piano. A Gallup poll conducted in 2005 indicated that the average employee spends more than 75 minutes a day using office computers for non-business purposes – which isn’t a bad thing overall, but when the general level of entertainment on the Internet consists of watching home videos of people falling off furniture, one may question the usefulness of such pursuits. In the end, love it or leave it – the Internet is here to stay, so here’s to 40 more years!