Alexei Bayer: Is the internet about to die?

Among numerous important events of the past year it was easy to miss that 2018 was also the Year of the Hack. Over one billion people had their personal data stolen. Victims included airlines, health care providers, social media platforms, hotels, government entities and others. Criminals were routinely stealing people’s identities and their money from accounts, mounted scams and touched governments, companies and individuals for ransom.

Part of the reason the Trump Administration is engaged in a trade war with China is Beijing’s pervasive hacking activity for the purpose of stealing trade secrets from US companies.

Internet crime was increasingly employed for political means as well. The investigation into Russian activities in the runup to the US presidential election is ongoing, and there are clear signs that other polls around the world were affected by outside interference as well. Meanwhile, 2019 started with the revelation that the entire German political establishment had been compromised by a massive hack. Extreme right-wing politicians were somehow spared.

We are increasingly aware of the dangers the cyber infrastructure poses, but we seem to be unable to do much about it. At least for now.

The internet penetrated human society faster and deeper than any other technological development in history, and it changed our lives profoundly. Yet it is still a young medium: most people had never even heard of it twenty five years ago. It has more room to grow, expand and become more sophisticated.

Big Tech is thriving. The revenue of just the big four tech firms – Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google – at around $650 billion a year – roughly equals the gross domestic product of Switzerland.

Large technology companies increasingly dominate our lives and, according to a recent piece in the New York Times, are gearing up to become even richer and more powerful. That’s because of the simultaneous advances on two fronts: 5G, or the fifth generation of internet telephony, and AI, or artificial intelligence.

With 5G, the Internet of Things will become reality. Your appliances, cars and other objects will be able to talk to each other without human intervention and, thanks to AI, make independent decisions how to serve you better, make you saver and simplify your life.

That’s a good thing. But it is also a hacker’s paradise and a dream come true for any computer criminal. With AI enhancement, any individual can become a virtuoso hacker, and criminally minded organizations – from criminal gangs to rogue governments – will become omnipotent.

Think of your autonomous car being taken over on the highway. Or your ex-boyfriend opening gas on your stove overnight.

Of course dire predictions about technology gone mad are nothing new. They usually go hand in hand with calls to ban this or that new technological advance. Two centuries ago, there were warnings that humans would not be able survive the breakneck speeds achieved by trains going as fast as 35 miles per hour.

Machine guns were also predicted to be the death of humankind.

Obviously, human society eventually adjusted to all such advances. While technological progress always caused disruptions to the established way of life, it never threatened human existence.

However, this is no longer true. Nuclear weapons became the first technology that poses an existential threat to life on Earth. Nuclear proliferation is proceeding apace. After World War II only the United States and its two closest allies had nukes. Today’s nuclear club includes Russia, China, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea. Since the end of the Cold War geopolitical risks have multiplied and the emergence of rogue nations makes a conflict in which nuke are used considerably more likely.

Previously, a technologically advanced nation was militarily stronger than a more backward one. In the 19th or 20th century, when Britain or France fought colonial wars, their foes in Africa or Asia had no wherewithal to inflict damage on their home territories. When the United States fought wars in Vietnam and Iraq, for Ho Chi Minh or Saddam striking the United States was not a possibility. Obviously, a nuclear warhead is a great equalizer. But so is the Internet. The development of the internet creates new vulnerabilities for technological leaders which even less developed nations can exploit.

We now know that crucial parts of civilian infrastructure are vulnerable to hacking. An enemy can disrupt communications, turn off power, cause flooding and do various other damage from thousands of miles away, remaining concealed. Moreover, bugs and malware may be implanted into systems and lay in wait for a long time.

Nations spend considerable amounts of money on their armed forces. However, these are preparations for the old war. The new battle may have already been joined. Russia in particular is waging computer warfare against most of the world, and so is China.

Moreover, it is the kind of warfare that can be fought on the cheap, requiring a fraction of the investment needed to develop or acquire sophisticated military hardware. It evens up the chances of small, less developed nations against great powers. It is anyone’s guess what Iran or North Korea have in store for the United States in case Washington decides to attack, but they are likely to be able to inflict a lot more damage on America’s homeland than Vietnam or Iraq were able to do.

And, the more the internet and AI develop and the deeper technology penetrates, the more vulnerable the infrastructure will become.

The history of warfare consists of the development of new offensive weapons and then defenses to counter them. Eventually the Internet too may become impervious to hacking. But before we get there, the vulnerability of existing infrastructure may require an urgent solution.

One of them could be scaling back the openness and freedom offered by global connectivity. China is already censoring the internet for political reasons, and other countries will likely follow suit. Disconnecting from the worldwide web might be a logical next step.

Historically, it won’t be such a radical departure. True, for the past one thousand years human civilization has been progressing, but it wasn’t always the case. The technological sophistication, political advances, transport and commercial networks built up in the Roman Empire were rejected by the Europeans in the Middle Ages. Europe became fragmented into tribal principalities and went back to subsistence farming.

Obviously the world won’t return all the way back to the Dark Ages, but the anti-globalist, neonationalist mood that is sweeping the world, along with concern about economic development in light of accelerating climate change, provides a receptive environment for a rollback of the internet for reasons of national security.

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Ан-225 «Мрия»

1 февраля 1989 года самолет был показан широкой публике, а в мае того же года Ан-225 совершил беспосадочный перелет из Байконура в Киев, неся у себя на спине «Буран» весом 60 тонн. В том же месяце Ан-225 доставил космический корабль «Буран» на авиасалон в Париже и произвел там настоящий фурор. В общей сложности на счету самолета 240 мировых рекордов, в том числе перевозка самого тяжелого груза (253 тонны), самого тяжелого монолитного груза (188 тонн) и самого длинного груза.