Today, CNN reports that “Hundreds of personal Gmail accounts, including those of some senior U.S. government officials, were hacked as a result of a massive phishing scheme originating from China, Google said Wednesday.”
In an 2009 interview, the director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said “In 2007 we probably had our electronic Pearl Harbor. It was an espionage Pearl Harbor. Some unknown foreign power, and honestly, we don’t know who it is, broke into the Department of Defense, to the Department of State, the Department of Commerce, probably the Department of Energy, probably NASA. They broke into all of the high tech agencies, all of the military agencies, and downloaded terabytes of information.”
Given the structure of the Internet, it is virtually inevitable that someone, either a genius in a garage, or a government sponsored cyber-attack group, is going to shut down millions of computers at once. Or, worse, shut down airports or the power grid. We know it can be done and we know how to do it. All of our designs—all of them—for thermonuclear weapons have already been stolen.
In addition to these sorts of headline events, millions of Internet users experience a daily barrage of spam and pop-ups. Their computers are invaded by viruses and worms. Their identities are hacked and stolen. If you run a server, as I do, it is like the scene in The Matrix where the Sentinel squids attack the Nebuchadnezzar hovercraft. With the right tracking software you can see a continual barrage of bots trying to drill into the server by guessing passwords, scanning for open ports, and looking for bits of code on pages that can be exploited.
The problems with the present structure of the Internet go beyond security. The current architecture makes it difficult and awkward for users to pay for content or for email. Even just a 1¢ charge per email would put almost all spammers out of business. Spammers rely on it being virtually costless to send out several million emails. More importantly, the lack of a micro-payment system makes it extremely difficult for those who create content—especially written content and images—to receive any payments for their work. The result has been the evolution of an advertising-based Internet with “successful” firms being the ones who can capture and exploit the most private information about their “customers.”
It is not unusual to rebuild infrastructure as times change. With greater urban densities, and the consequent risk of fire, wood frame houses were replaced by brick. In the first round of railroad building during the 1840s and 50s, most lines went from west to east, linking towns with seaports along the coast. Because the lines didn’t connect, track standards varied. But, after the US Civil War, north-south trade grew rapidly and the infrastructure was rebuilt with standardized track widths (4′ 8.5″).
Our present Internet was constructed by computer scientists to connect labs and universities together. They were appalled when the opening up of the Internet in 1994-95 led to discussion boards being filled with advertisements for pornography and other off-topic blandishments. The word “spam” was coined to describe this unexpected flood of anonymous communication.The Internet’s designers had no idea it would be used by billions of people all over the world.
The basic architectural error in the Internet is anonymity. It is a mistake of epic proportions. The key problems of the Internet—piracy, viruses, hacking, spam, systematic attacks—can all be traced to anonymity. It makes no more sense for serious people to prefer an anonymous Internet than to prefer that automobile drivers remain anonymous, or that airline passengers travel under false names.
One way to look at the explosive growth of social networking sites is people’s desire to be identified and to interact with others who are identified. And to not be constantly spammed and attacked by anonymous sociopaths. To the extent that companies like Facebook and LinkedIn lose control of this, and subject their users to spam, spurious advertising, and cyber attacks, their utility will shrink sharply.
The second architectural error in the Internet is the lack of a micro-payment system. The use of credit-cards makes each transaction complex and leads companies to work to bind users into monthly-dues arrangements, breaking the open character of the Web. Imagine if there were a simple way to stuff money into an online account and to make small payments of, say 5¢, by pressing the Alt-F12 key. Then a magazine or newspaper could offer a few free pages but ask you to pay a nickel to see more. By keeping the payment small and easy, browsing freedom is maintained. But, by having a payment, the print publishing industry might actually flourish.
Many people will dislike these proposals, seeing free access and anonymity as basic values delivered by the Internet. Free access is a fine thing, but anonymous use of other people’s copyright material is more simply described as theft. The desire for anonymity seems rooted in a fear of Big Brother, the ever-watching figure of the tyranny described in George Orwell’s 1984. My own view is that the protection against tyranny is political vigilance, not anonymity. And, more importantly, the threats against my person and my property are not emanating from “Big Brother.” They are coming from the anonymous sociopaths among us.