Depending on your age you may remember those first intoxicating days of the Internet. Slow dial-up connections weren’t a problem; no one knew there was something better on the horizon. Google didn’t exist so the Internet wasn’t the go-to hub for research. Internet porn was in its infancy. Spam, hacking and identify theft weren’t even on the radar yet; of course there was very little to steal since on-line banking and bill payment weren’t available.
The Internet quickly began to change when Google stormed onto the scene in 1998. As technology continued to develop no longer was it necessary to pay bills through the mail. As the latest reported statistics show, in 2010 over 36 million households had begun paying their bills online. Access to the worldwide Web has made staying in touch with family and friends so much simpler. From personal email accounts to social media networking sites including Facebook, currently with 1.44 billion monthly users, Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube and Twitter all offer the ability to interact with everyone from strangers who stay that way, people you already have a prior relationship with and those who quickly become friends simply through shared interests.
These are the positives of connectivity but what about the often devastating risks associated with having an online presence? Most people are surprised to learn the same social networking platforms they use to post recipes and send pictures of their cats are also being used by radical terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS to entice new recruits, raise funds, threaten world leaders and even plan, implement and then post videos of everything from beheadings to hostile takeovers of towns and villages. In March of this year, ISIS threatened Twitter founder Jack Dorsey because the company had begun blocking terrorist related social media accounts.
International Internet risks have been a constant concern at least since 2012 when the World Economic Forum released their annual Global Risks report detailing how “we understand the benefits of the Internet better than we understand the risks.” Almost 500 industry leaders and experts in a wide range of fields were polled on what they believed to be the biggest risks of 2012 and beyond. The general consensus was the greatest dangers were to critical infrastructures including energy, transportation and both information and communication technologies which world over are relied upon to facilitate daily life and are constantly and increasingly dependent on hyper-connectivity.
In the past “critical systems failure” were something generally seen in an “end of days” action thriller starring Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise. Now those same three words are striking fear in the hearts of financial leaders, technology gurus and both military and law enforcement heads around the world. Until recently destabilizing a government, corporation, power grid or geopolitical faction took significant resources. Now, as we have recently experienced through numerous financial attacks, a skilled online hacker can, through a networked computer system, quickly and anonymously create chaos. One of the largest online breaches occurred against the Target Corporation in December, 2013. Since the Target data breach, other firms including Home Depot and Staples, Premera and Anthem heath care systems and even the United States Postal Service have all experienced major hacking scandals.
If this can be done so easily for financial gain, what are the odds further economic shocks, social upheaval and virtual world terrorism aren’t far behind? There have already been reports of cyber-espionage infiltrating high profile political, economic and media servers and computers in over 100 countries. GhostNet, the largest cyber-espionage operation to date was discovered in March, 2009. Almost 1,300 computer systems including those belonging to foreign embassies, ministries, government offices and officials and even the Dalai Lama’s exile centers in India, London and New York City were compromised by the creators of GhostNet. Though the majority of activity was based out of the People’s Republic of China, the Chinese government strongly denied any knowledge or involvement with GhostNet and there was never any conclusive evidence supporting anything to the contrary.
Those responding to the 2012 Global Risks survey felt all the international progress accomplished since the creation of the Internet could rapidly be overturned and that many of the world’s most necessary institutions are extremely ill-equipped to deal with today’s rapidly evolving cyber-risks. It is not beyond the realm of possibly to one day be faced with attacks on chemical refineries, water plants, oil or gas pipelines or electrical grids. A complete financial meltdown was narrowly averted in 2010 when NASDAQ survived an attack by Russian hackers. Then our very own U.S. State Department and White House computer system was hacked several months ago, reportedly by Russian operatives.
The majority of hacking and cyber-intrusion is no longer done by a socially inept techno-geek living in his Mom’s basement. In Russia, a legitimately employed computer engineer earns only around $24,000 a year. Highly trained computer scientists and mathematicians can earn 10 times that amount when they become involved with Russian organized crime, the majority of which have strong ties to law enforcement, greatly lessening the chances of legal prosecution. In fact, most hackers will only attract the ire of the Federal Security Service (formerly the KGB) if they attempt to hack a company located inside Russia or a component of the Russian government.
Faced with all these global technological, economic, environmental, geopolitical and societal cyber-risks could easily explain why FBI director, James Comey along with the nation’s top intelligence officials told a Congressional committee current “cyber threats are eclipsing terrorism as the main threat we face as a nation.”