Image, with caption: The Brave Little Toaster” by Jon Laing
Jennifer Howard, " Internet of stings," The Times Literary Supplement; see also John Brown, "The End of Cyber-Utopianism?" Huffington Post (2015); "Remember When Social Media Was the Solution to All Our Global Problems?" Huffington Post (2014)
Does anyone surf the internet anymore? The days of free-wheeling it around the web, just to see what’s out there, feel distant. In this post-factual, truth-averse era, many of the destinations that draw us online have become unsafe spaces, hostile and treacherous, where hatefulness and fake news prevail and surveillance is omnipresent. The web has changed, and it has changed us. How big those changes are, and what we can or ought to do about them, form the subject of these four books.
Big Brother might not be our biggest problem. With nationalism surging on both sides of the Atlantic, the online world looks more and more like a retro-futurist megalopolis overrun by trolls, criminals and state-backed hackers with the power not just to leap corporate firewalls but to skew elections. Marc Goodman’s Future Crimes: Inside the digital underground and the battle for our connected world peddles a pessimistic view in line with the Edward Snowden era, in which every week brings another data-hungry gadget along with a fresh round of headlines about governmental or corporate breaches of privacy and trust.
Bad enough was Yahoo!’s admission earlier this year that it leaked 500 million users’ data, followed by allegations that it acquiesced without protest to the US government’s demand to scan millions of emails for phrases indicating threats to national security. Far scarier was the sophisticated DDoS (distributed denial of service) attack in late October against Dyn, a company that helps to keep the internet humming along, which left users unable to reach sites including Twitter, Netflix and the New York Times. In what that paper called “a troubling development”, those responsible for the Dyn attack apparently hijacked the Internet of Things, commandeering “hundreds of thousands of internet-connected devices like cameras, baby monitors and home routers that have been infected – without their owners’ knowledge – with software that allows hackers to command them to flood a target with overwhelming traffic”.
One could be forgiven for feeling paranoid these days. Goodman’s biography lends itself to alarmist tendencies: the author has worked as a police officer and police trainer, an adviser to Interpol, and as a “futurist-in-residence” with the FBI. He is described on his website as the founder of something called “the Future Crimes Institute” – its name reminiscent of something from the film Minority Report. He is also the chair for Policy, Law, and Ethics at Silicon Valley’s Singularity University, an incubator/think-tank that touts its members as “community of change agents”.
His book reads like notes for a hard-boiled detective novel set in some near-future dystopia. Goodman spends hundreds of pages describing what he sees as the cybergalactic battle taking place all around us, mostly invisibly. He catalogues hundreds of real and hypothetical skirmishes, ambushes and manoeuvres involving criminals, technocrats, corporations and governments. Caught in the middle, we hapless Netizens blithely post to Facebook, check our smartphones every thirty seconds, hand over all sorts of personal information without a second thought, and leave trails of unprotected data everywhere we go.
Goodman’s message is that what we don’t know will hurt us:
As I look toward the future, I am increasingly concerned about the ubiquity of computing in our lives and how our utter dependence on it is leaving us vulnerable in ways that very few of us can even begin to comprehend. The current systemic complexities and interdependencies are great and growing all the time. Yet there are individuals and groups who are rapidly making sense of them and innovating in real time, to the detriment of us all.
The dark side of internet-enabled innovation makes for spooky storytelling, and Goodman plays it for all it’s worth. Who are these sinister figures who have taken Silicon Valley’s promised “techno-utopia”, as Goodman calls it, and perverted it to their own ends? Almost everyone, according to Future Crimes. Better to ask who isn’t out to get us or, more to the point, our data. This is where Goodman’s footing feels firmest. We are profligate with our data, and we don’t even seem to care half the time.
Corporations want it. Google, Facebook and other corporations offer free services in exchange for intimate and monetizable knowledge of our lives, experiences and connections. Governments want it. They surveil us in the name of protection, as Snowden’s revelations made clear. Terrorists want it. One especially chilling episode in Future Crimes details how the masterminds of the 2008 Mumbai attacks used mobile phones and internet access to run their team of assailants remotely and maximize their deadliness. And cyber spies and foreign powers want to get our data, too – or skew it for their own ends. In the US, many Americans are haunted by the idea that Russian hackers had a hand in the WikiLeaks release of hacked Democratic emails, perhaps skewing the course of the election. Hackers, it seems, can get to us at the ballot box too.
Criminals, of course, have always had a field day with data – the code to the safe, the details of where you live, the routines of the security guards at the bank. They just have a lot more data to steal now, and lots of virtual unlocked doors to sneak through to get it. Goodman leaves no potential threat unmentioned. Cyberthieves, petty and professional, pilfer passwords and social-security numbers in order to steal identities and drain bank accounts. They buy and sell almost anything – weapons, trafficked people and wildlife, sensitive information – on the black market, and they commit their crimes remotely, across continents and oceans. He conjures visions of a Spectre-like underworld he calls Crime Inc. that brings a high degree of professionalism to illicit multinational dealings. It relies on the Dark Web – the vast portion of online activity Google won’t help you find – to do business.
All the good things about digital life – connection, information, analysis, activism, discovery – are almost invisible here. Our devices don’t connect us, they betray us. Smartphones, so ready to hand, so hard to put down, become “the snitches in our pockets”. Corporations that design our devices, software and ruling algorithms want it that way. The Dyn attack lends support to Goodman’s warning. It is not impossible that someday soon, as we bring more everyday objects online, they too will sell us out: computer-run cars and “smart” homes with networked appliances create security gaps we don’t see. “Once they’ve compromised the coffeepot, they’ve broken the virtual Maginot Line perimeter of your network”, Goodman writes. “From there it’s just a hop, skip, and jump to infect and attack the more secure and profitable devices in your home”, like the “locked-down encrypted laptop” that uses the same network as that traitorous coffee pot. And science-fiction writers might want to take notes on Goodman’s speculations about how even our bodies might betray us, not in the old physical ways but through hacker-vulnerable implants and prosthetics and ingestibles and whatever else we invent to bring ourselves and our machines into greater alignment. Meanwhile, the drone that delivers pizza to your home, or that Amazon Prime impulse buy to your doorstep, could be repurposed by a terrorist to deliver a bomb to any number of targets. That’s just plausible enough to be unsettling, and something one hopes the authorities will keep an eye on. But – at least in America – fellow citizens wielding firearms or spray-painting swastikas and committing hate crimes – feel like a much greater and more immediate threat to personal safety and democratic values.
What, in this booby-trapped digital landscape, does taking care look like? Goodman has less to say about what we ought to do about it, other than to caution that we can’t look to the government for help. “Our federal government has effectively abdicated responsibility for protecting its citizenry in our increasingly connected digital world”, he says. When the National Security Agency has its own hacking tools compromised and published on the website Github, as occurred earlier this year, that is all too apparent.
In an appendix, Goodman shares security advice that, after 600 pages of warnings, feels like treating a severed artery with a plaster. Update frequently to take advantage of security patches and software fixes. Use more complicated passwords. Download only from reputable sites. Encrypt your data. Etc. He is right that many of us live in relative ignorance of what happens as we move around online. That message bears repeating. But to invoke Moore’s Law, as Goodman does again and again to convey an exponential increase in technology-fuelled risk, feels dated and a little cheap. (It also does not take into account the many people worldwide still trying to get online in the first place.) Paranoia has its limits as an operating system, and Goodman doesn’t give enough credit to the many efforts under way to educate and protect us. Other commentators make a better case for the need to equip individuals to keep control of their own data. One of the strongest voices belongs to Audrey Watters, who runs the excellent Hack Education website (www.hackeducation.com) and has a keen eye for corporate incursions into our lives. Watters and other “cybercritics” call attention to the unthinking ways in which we hand control of our data over to third parties, and encourage data-independence projects such as A Domain of One’s Own at the University of Mary Washington (http://umw.domains/).
While Goodman keeps his eye on risk, Scott Malcomson trains his on history. In Splinternet: How geopolitcs and commerce are fragmenting the World Wide Web, Malcomson traces cyberspace back to “the world of physical power”, specifically military might and national influence. For him, “the Internet’s alternative world was built by people in love with and in fear of machines, who wanted to see how machines might communicate with each other – forming, in a sense, one big machine – and how humans could communicate within and through this machine”. While we worry about governments tracking us, Malcomson makes the case that we wouldn’t have an internet at all without the state. In a sometimes dry but useful recap, he gives a good deal of credit to the “scientific cooperation and innovation on a large scale” created in response to the industrial scale of the First World War.
It is fascinating to read how the National Research Council (NRC), established by President Woodrow Wilson, became, “in effect, the birthplace of the military-industrial complex”. Malcomson describes it as “a formative place and experience for many of the people who would construct and unite the elements of digital computing and the Internet”, including Vannevar Bush, Frank Jewett and Elmer Sperry. (In Malcomson’s account, building the internet was pretty much entirely a man’s game.) The first big challenge involved how to fire ships’ guns accurately. “Naval gunnery was, in essence, a contest for survival between two machine-enhanced humans at a distance”, Malcomson explains, and to win the contest, the military needed control systems “that could very rapidly calculate the relationships among the shifting variables and aim and fire guns accordingly”. The (non-digital) device invented to accomplish that was called a computer – “the first use of the term to describe a machine”. Next came the rise of “a new political system aimed at constant innovation in the service of defense”, including the development during the Second World War of the supercomputer called ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer), which helped to hone the missile-guidance systems of the Cold War era. (Incidentally, ENIAC’s programmers were women – the “ENIAC girls”.) The launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik led President Eisenhower to create ARPA, the Advanced Research Projects Agency, in 1959. (“Defense” was added to its name in 1972, hence DARPA.) ARPANET – “the first Internet” – “was built primarily to enable time-sharing on a network of computers, which meant information had to be passed among them”.
Malcomson describes how the urge to create better machines, and to get them to talk to each other, toggled back and forth between the public and private sectors. In the 1960s, computing was still allied to national defence. By the 70s, it had shifted in what he calls “a countercultural direction” as computers went from room-sized to a more individual scale, a downsizing we’re still witnessing. Free-spirited San Francisco became a hub of activity, and the men – still men, in this telling – behind computers embraced hacker culture. Eventually, at the end of the 1980s, Tim Berners-Lee figured out protocols for content that permitted information “to be smoothly delivered to the individual computers that were requesting it”. Hello, internet.
Splinternet does a good job of describing the push–pull among hackers and engineers and researchers, the US government and private research companies and service providers – including Bell Labs and Fairchild Semiconductor, Apple and Microsoft, Google and Facebook – that created our online environment. By 2000, Malcomson says, the balance had shifted back towards the big players. “The subculture had lost the battle. Governments and large corporations would now shape the Internet.”
Yet, ever creative, the counter-culture finds workarounds. Hackers and the privacy-minded “jailbreak” their devices, removing software restrictions imposed by manufacturers, or use VPNs (virtual private networks), which enable users to bypass official, commercial channels and share data more securely. For Irene S. Wu, a senior analyst at the US Federal Communications Commission, commerce has been an enabler, not a handicap, for the internet and the connective technologies that preceded it, at least as far back as the telegraph in the nineteenth century. In Forging Communities: How technology changes politics, Wu considers case studies that illustrate how innovation has enabled activism, agitation and social change. Technology often feels like the organizing principle of the age; in this and previous eras, it has also shown its virtues as an enabler of organized protest and grass-roots action.
Like Malcomson, Wu takes the long view, but she broadens her focus beyond the West. She mentions the role played by Twitter and Facebook during the Arab Spring, and several of her case studies explore episodes that either took place in or focused on Asia. TsunamiHelp, for instance, brought together volunteers who used a blog and wiki (a collaborative website) to share quick-time information after the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 that killed more than 225,000 people in South and Southeast Asia. A “trust community” of volunteers accomplished what governments and media could not, demonstrating how sharing data can be a great good as well as a great risk.
According to Wu, “The commercialization of communications technology is the foundation of that technology’s usefulness as a political tool”. It is easy and often justifiable to demonize corporations, but those that specialize in tech development have a pecuniary interest in the delivery of easy-to-use solutions and products. The easier a technology is to use, Wu points out, the more easily adopted it tends to be. Facebook and Twitter encourage us to part with our data, but their reach and practicality make them handy for organizers and activists as well as casual users.
Wu’s embrace of commerce as an engine of “trust communities” comes across as glib and too trusting of market-centred interventions. It’s true that where there’s a market, there’s usually a will to serve and exploit it. But Wu neglects the ways in which commerce undercuts independence online, and how prefab platforms and ready-to-go technologies can create what the anthropologist Amber Case calls the “templated self”. Trust communities have a dark side, too. During the recent American election season, many a Facebook page and Twitter feed became a study in the echo-chamber effect, where like-minded groups reinforce their own certainties and shout down opposing views. If there is a market for civilized debate, it is woefully under-capitalized.
Wu also fails to look over her shoulder at the creeping threat posed by government entities’ continued advance on the internet. Instead, she notes that just because a government controls information channels, such as state-run TV channels or websites, this doesn’t mean citizens are compelled to believe the news they are fed. That is true, but not very reassuring. For many content consumers, reality is mostly virtual anyway. That creates a problem scarier than many of Goodman’s scenarios: the rise of fabricated news, which spreads faster via Facebook and other online platforms than a cold virus in a kindergarten classroom. A BuzzFeed analysis from mid-November found that “top fake election news stories generated more total engagement on Facebook than top election stories from 19 major news outlets combined”. As one master of the fake-news genre told the Washington Post: “Honestly, people are definitely dumber. They just keep passing stuff around. Nobody fact-checks anything anymore”. Separating truth from fiction takes time, information literacy, and an open mind, all of which seem in short supply in a distracted, polarized culture. We love to share instantly – and that makes us easy to manipulate.
Our herd instinct complicates the notion of privacy. As Roberto Simanowski makes clear in his compelling Data Love: The seduction and betrayal of digital technologies, it’s hard to keep private something which on other levels we so fiercely desire to collect and share. “One needs to ask why people as citizens insist on a private sphere that they blithely ignore as consumers”, he writes. “Data love – our love for data and its love for us – is the embrace that hardly anyone in this day and age can avoid.”
Simanowski makes an excellent case that the most essential struggle is not with the NSA or Facebook but with ourselves. We are in the middle of a “cold civil war”, he writes, one taking place “not between the citizens but within the citizenry, that is, between the interest in technological progress, orientation, and being noticed on the one hand and, on the other, the occasional sense of discomfort at being the object of surveillance and control”.
Simanowski, too, takes a historical view. But is it any comfort to know that the late Middle Ages experienced “a paradigm shift from qualitative to quantitative understanding”? Not really, unless you find it soothing to think that humanity has been looking for ways to quantify and surveil itself since long before Steve Jobs brought us the iPhone.
Measuring and surveillance are indeed close cousins, and together they lead the hunt for more data. More data becomes Big Data, and Big Data wants to be used. A recent article in the Times Higher Education raised the question of whether university libraries, for instance, ought to use the data they collect about how often students visit to give evidence that increased library use improves academic performance. “You could argue it is unethical for institutions not to use this type of data if they know they can help students gain higher grades or stop them from dropping out”, said a consultant interviewed for the story. Taken far enough, that reasoning becomes as sinister as anything described in Future Crimes.
How to deal with the compulsion to collect and use ever more data is a matter of real urgency, but cybersecurity should be seen in the context of a much bigger set of concerns. (There is one notable omission in all of these books: none of the authors asks what happens to offline experience – or to the nonhuman world – as more and more of our thought and attention revolves around what we do online.) “The question we need to ask”, Simanowski insists at the end of Data Love, “is the one that addresses the message of the medium”: “What is the inner logic of digital media, and how do these media enforce this logic in the social constellation?” Online networking, born of a desire to share as well as count, increases the pull to quantify, and Simanowski identifies a “contemporary imperative of transparency and disclosure” in which there’s no such thing as too much sharing.
How much privacy are we willing to give up to reap the benefits of a networked world? To live digitally is a more complex and ambivalent process than any of these books captures, and there are risks that the authors do not acknowledge – for instance, how to archive and access the public data and cultural knowledge being created in quantities never seen before. At this moment in our digital evolution, though, what worries me most is whether we can find the collective will and the technological capacity to reclaim the internet from those who use it to exploit, control and abuse, whether they are criminals, governments, or white supremacists. It would be a disaster to let this decade spiral into a tech-enriched replay of the 1930s. Fear technology if you must, but fear the people who control it more.