The interconnected world is not all good


The evermore interconnected world about which technology journalists like to enthuse has always had its dark side. This is, of course, that being connected to the Internet does not only provide users with the enthralling opportunity to find out whatever they want to know; it also gives malign operators the chance to find everything they want to know about you.

Anyone who has any sort of computer that links to the Internet is effectively leaving the front door of their homes wide open. Strangers with the appropriate software tools can enter their lives and see who their friends are, what they like to eat, where they have been, where they are planning to go and how much money they have. It is not too much to argue that there is no longer any true privacy. Users of social media have served themselves up to the likes of Facebook which has monitored their every thought. The agglomeration of vast amounts of data, given up so willingly on social media, has enabled these big companies to sell profiles of individuals to advertisers. The talk that this information is anonymized is clearly bunkum. How is it that the day after someone browses a product web page, a specific offer for that very item appears on their social media page?

But it, of course, goes further than that. Last week all of Argentina and much of Uruguay were blacked out by a massive power failure. It may be that as with the infamous 2003 US East Coast blackout that affected 55 million people, the fault was again supposedly the failure of a ten-cent transistor. But given the computer-run world in which we live, it is equally likely that this was some, possibly state-sponsored, hacker somewhere, conducting a test to see how much damage could be done with a bit of malware.

This week there have been claims that mobile phone networks around the world have been penetrated, apparently by the Chinese. The US-Israeli security firm Cybereason which produced the warning claimed that though the hack had been designed to collect information on individual users, it also had the capacity to shut down whole networks.

Also this week, the Norwegian multi-national Norsk-Hydro revealed that its entire worldwide system of 22,000 computers had been frozen by a ransomware attack. Though this highly automated company is reliant on computers to run its aluminum production, it has refused to pay. Instead it has reverted to its old paper-based systems, calling in retired employees to help and reassigning back office staff to work on the plant floor. So far, this fight against the hackers has cost the company in the region of $50 million. Cleansing and rebuilding its operating systems is a substantial undertaking. But the Norwegian management took the brave view that caving in to ransomware that encrypts the entire data of a company, which can only be unlocked by buying a security key, would merely be encouraging the criminals to carry on.

Unfortunately, there is strong evidence that some major international corporations have been paying off the hackers.

The modern interconnected world does indeed seem a threatening place. The only good news is that if the forces of law and order choose to make a concerted effort to go after them, the criminals themselves will be as vulnerable as their victims.