Are you on your smartphone? Someone could be listening. Are you browsing Google? Someone knows what you’re searching for. Are you reading this in your underwear with a webcam on? Someone might be watching. (Probably not for long though. Let’s not flatter ourselves.)
Between the jeopardizing of credit cards at various retailers and the recent events at Sony pictures, we are finally coming to terms with how much our technologically-connected world presents both promise and threat. For the nerds out there, you might think of the internet as Tolkien’s “One Ring,” treacherous in the wrong hands, and far-reaching. For the non-nerds, consider the last time you suffered a panic attack as pop ups on your screen indicated a malicious presence, perhaps one even tapped into your webcam and email accounts. And the fact that this is an issue of international concern makes it all the more frightening.
Before we lose our collective sense of first-world, mocha-holding calm fretting about some technological collapse on an apocalyptic level, it is notable that our world leaders aren’t exactly oblivious.
Prompted by the hacking of Sony, our president and the UK’s Prime Minister, David Cameron, have been in talks regarding cyber “war games.” What does this entail?
This week, BBC reported that the cyber war games will begin with stagings involving the Bank of England and commercial banks, then move on to Wall Street and the City of London. The aim is to increase our ability to predict and thwart plans to sabotage persons and institutions via cyber threats. Like many great sci-fi thrillers, we will be testing our own underbelly and infrastructure with agents, politics and strategic tactics.
However, all this excitement does make you wonder if we are not, in fact, becoming too reliant upon a potentially cannibalistic system
The irony is inescapable. Technology, one of the most potent weapons in our arsenal, can and will (naturally) be used against us. Furthermore, the skills needed to take technological advances from being helpful to harmful are not rocket science. Anyone who has grown up having either a desktop or laptop computer at their disposal has the access and capability to use directions from websites on how to successfully hack into another person’s computer. Most of the time, these actions result in disturbing offenses, such as spying on someone using their webcam and a RAT (remote administration tool), allowing them to see and hear all that might be witnessed through the lens and microphone. Nate Anderson of Arstechnica.com gave a more thorough account of the process in a 2013 article, describing the developing sub-culture:
“Man I feel dirty looking at these pics,” wrote one forum poster at Hack Forums, one of the top “aboveground” hacking discussion sites on the Internet (it now has more than 23 million total posts). The poster was referencing a 134+ page thread filled with the images of female ‘slaves’ surreptitiously snapped by hackers using the women’s own webcams. ‘Poor people think they are alone in their private homes, but have no idea they are the laughing stock on HackForums,’ he continued. ‘It would be funny if one of these slaves venture into learning how to hack and comes across this thread.’ ”
Though deeply unsettling, webcam intrusion via RAT are obviously not the biggest fish to fry.
There has been much talk, even from President Obama, about the Sony hack affecting our “free speech,” as U.S. Cinema decided against wide-release of The Interview. I think that with the “Guardians of Peace” (the hackers’ chosen name) having been referred to as cyber terrorists, our freedom of speech cannot be the only freedom at stake. Terrorism is a word often tossed about nowadays more with the intent of grabbing your attention and eliciting fear than accurately describing an act or acts of politically-motivated intimidation.
In this case, it seems justified — not because most of us really care whether or not a film gets wide release, but because the implications are far-reaching. Intimidation may have been the intent, but it’s also a reality we are coming to accept, and we must prepare ourselves.
With so many of our laws and policies now becoming irrevocably connected to databases and web-based storage, it’s clear that our leaders really do need to start thinking in terms of prevention and protection, before even the most confidential medical and financial information is laid bare for the taking.
The credit card breaches at Target have proven that to some extent, along with the ease by which young, uneducated hackers can gain access to a stranger’s computer. For those who say they use cash only, don’t buy anything online or put their information “out there,” they may not need to. The requirements for living in our modern society make threats of a cyber origin simply another risk of living.
Megan Wallin is a young writer with a background in the social sciences and an interest in seeking the extraordinary in the mundane. A Seattle native, she finds complaining about the constant drizzle and overabundance of Starbucks coffee therapeutic. With varied work experiences as a residential counselor, preprimary educator, musician, writing tutor and college newspaper reporter/editor, Megan is thrilled to offer a unique perspective through writing, research and open dialogue.