The internet is a beautiful thing. It has no boundaries and the only limitation it has is the imagination of its users. New cultures have been born because of it, and more are being developed daily. New tech, new many things. On the internet you don’t need a visa to travel to a different country.
The internet, in itself, is an unclaimed territory with more than 2 billion citizens. Easy to say, the world’s superpowers are busy trying to get their own piece of it. And just like a physical territory, there’s also espionage, spying, and a war going on in the cyber world. You may not realize it, but it’s been going on for several years now.
One prime example is the United States’ Nasional Security Agency (NSA) that spies on Americans and 193 other countries every minute of every day, with one goal in mind (and I’m simplifying it here): to collect information and use them to deter acts of terrorism. If you want to get your heart pumping, here’s a timeline of NSA’s domestic spying.
But in their bid to do this, backlash from across the globe has started. China is a big country and in the recent decades it has proved to be an industrial and economic marvel. And now they have begun to heavily invest in their cyber capabilities. Last year, Iran‘s supreme leader told students to prepare for cyberwar. Perhaps it’s a reaction to Saudis and Israelis’ cyber attack on Iran’s nuclear program back in 2010.
Russia is on the offensive too. One of the most publicized cyber attack they did was hacking into the US State Department’s mail servers. And just recently, the Pentagon announced a new strategy for cyberwarfare in which cyberweapons were discussed.
And it’s not just governments attacking other governments in the cyberspace. Vital companies are also being cyber attacked by governments. And as a response, half of the surveyed UK companies said that they were considering hiring hackers in order to deter other hackers. Fight fire with fire, right?
But back to the global stage, the world is currently under a cyber semi-cold war with the US, Russia, Iran, and China as the main players. Just recently, news about the US getting hacked by the Chinese broke out.
According to experts, the incident involved the gathering of over 4 million current and former federal employee records. But while the motive of the hack is unclear, it is a highly targeted attack that could point to the possibility that the hackers are building their own database of US government employees. As it so happens, the Office of Personnel Management warned the US late last year that their networked systems are a “hacker’s dream,”and that they are not ready for an attack.
That’s actually a great question. The truth is, they don’t. The government and military generally have their own intranet – a private network that is only accessible to authorized personnel. Sure, it might still utilize the world wide web, butit is the kind that makes use of totally disconnected cable networks. In fact, big corporations have their own intranets as well, where their files can only be accessed on-site.
But just like businesses, governments and militaries can’t survive on intranet alone. While classified information are kept on systems that are not connected to the internet, there are still devices that are, mostly used for communication purposes like emailing, video conferencing, and the sending of files
When you hear in the news that a top-level government official’s email has been hacked, that’s most likely because the computer that was being used was connected to the internet.
Also, if a network that is not connected to the internet has been hacked and classified information has been leaked, it’s almost always a 100% chance that someone from the inside did it. But that’s not what we are here to discuss today.
The answer to this is simple, and scary: governments could build their own internet. Imagine a world where there are several Internets. Germany wants its own internet because of NSA’s spying scandal, while Iran is building its own "halal” internet which will be free of "impurities” from the outside world.
And it is not just a gimmick to think that other governments will follow in their lead. If these cyber attacks go out of hand, the only thing that could safeguard governments from each other is by totally disconnecting from one another. If that isn’t scary enough for you, let’s take a step back and look at what the internet is right now.
Right now I am talking to you while I am in the Philippines. You might be in South Korea, Japan, Kuwait, or the US, but you can still read this. You can talk to your friends through Skype who are in a different country. You can play online games in an international setting.
But what happens when the internet as we see it now disappears, and instead become smaller, confined, restrictive bubbles? That borderless communication will be gone. Which leads us to a new different way of getting information: information about other countries will be harder to come by. It is entirely possible that we will only get information from government-sanctioned channels.
This changes the way everything works; everyone will take a big hit. Think of how major a role Facebook and Twitter played during the Arab Spring. The whole world was watching and supporting them. But if governments cut off their connection to the rest of the world, this kind of free-flowing information will be a thing of the past.
Perhaps one major issue regular users will suffer from is the way we navigate the internet. It might get more difficult and expensive to get connected. Like withdrawing money from an ATM that is not from your bank, international calls may cost more because of rerouting. Plus, getting through will require going through many gateways and checkpoints, slowing down the information-gathering process, because of how the request is passed around. Alternatively, a "fast lane" may be offered for a fee.
Scary now when you think of it that way, right? And that’s a looming threat to us all. But there are far scarier things than this.
Power grids in the US and around the world are vulnerable to attacks, and we aren’t speaking hypothetically. In 2014 alone, the US power grid was attacked by hackers 79 times. Hackers managed to get into 37% of the companies that make the grid work.
According to reports, the attacks were (and still are) done by an army of hackers in a coordinated attempt to make entire cities go dark. Imagine an unassailable country like the US going dark, the ensuing panic will be chaotic.
Cars are getting smarter every year. From being able to diagnose what is wrong in their hardware or software, to totally skipping the need for a human driver. This is the future of cars, and it is coming fast.
Cars may even get upgrades by receiving updates from a remote server, and you probably know what that means by now – anything that is connected to the internet has the possibility of being hacked. In this case, autonomous cars can be targeted by hackers to control car functions.
Google can push codes to Android devices, and NSA had this brilliant idea to hijack Google Play and basically hack everyone’s phones. Good for us that this didn’t really pan out. Or did it?
The thing is, if one agency planned on doing it, other organizations might dedicate their time and resources into hacking not only Android devices, but also all phones that rely on automatic updates from a main server. This can then be used to not only track everyone’s movements, but also get into everyone’s private lives, making everyone’s personal data open to unwarranted espionage.
On October 23, 2010, 50 ICBMs that are equipped with nuclear tips went dark. Their human controllers lost communications with them for 45 minutes. Why is this scary? Because during that 45 minutes, the launch centers had no way of detecting unauthorized launch attempts.
It was not clear what the exact reason for the lockout was, which could be anything from a faulty cabling, someone hacking into the ICBMs through radio receivers, a staffer’s honest mistake in triggering the blackout, or a very dedicated hacker who was tapping into America’s thousands of miles of cables (highly unlikely). Whatever caused it could have started a nuclear war.
US military drones are already flying on their areas of interest. And they are carrying hellfire missiles. It is also inevitable that these drones connect wirelessly to their base stations where humans can control or update their systems once in a while.
With that in mind, do you think it’s entirely possible that hackers can gain access to these drones for their own purposes? Definitely.
Hackers can manipulate the stock market, which they did in 2010, when Russian hackers hacked into NASDAQ. While this attempt might simply mean someone wants information in order to earn big money, it is also not a far-fetched idea that in the future some organization bent on destroying a specific country’s economy would and could do so.
If this happens, people could lose jobs, houses could be foreclosed and the rate of homelessness will spike, civil unrest will ensue, and the collapse of law and order could destroy governments. This has happened before, in a pre-Internet period known as the Great Depression.
The stakes are high in the cyberworld. Private groups, corporations, and even governments are both on the offensive and defensive. It’s like watching several tribes battle for power and land. The only difference is that in the 21st century the thing they are fighting for isn’t even a physical place, but it sure contains great power.
And at the end of the day, we, the regular users, will be the casualties of this war between superpowers.
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