World Gone Wrong

Hot Press - - Front Lines -

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.


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 an­t­i­cap­i­tal­ist 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 coopted 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...”

Top of the bots: we’re all po­ten­tial hack­ing vic­tims

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