Why Cyber Terrorism is the 21st Century of Terror

The Interview, (c)2014 Sony Pictures
The Interview, (c)2014 Sony Pictures

The cyber attack on Sony Pictures might not seem something really to worry about to the general population, but this is possibly showing the real threat of what terrorism is evolving into, and why we should really worry.

Howard Stern spent a good portion of his air-time yesterday discussing, and defending, his comparison of the Sony cyber-attack to 9/11. The New York Daily News had published a post earlier that day more or less calling the shock jock an idiot for making this comparison.

The frustration of Mr. Stern is understandable; not so much for being made out to be an ‘idiot’ and describing the inability to compare a cyber-attack to a vicious ‘real life’ act of terror where people lose there lives. To the general public with less knowledge of what a cyber-attack like this actually means for us and our freedom, the comparison of Mr. Stern sounds like idiocy. And that audience will indeed see it like that; Stern, Seth Rogen and James Franco, and Sony Pictures for financing and distributing the movie ‘the Interview’ make a fuss about nothing. Because, how will an attack like the Sony cyber-attack change their lives like 9/11 had done?

Sadly, more than the people would like to know. In this blog, over the years, I have mentioned multiple times the issue of security, anonymity and piracy and privacy online. It is something in which my personal opinion of being working in this field for over two decades, is a delicate balancing act. Sometimes I shift to the less privacy, more security side, the other time to the more privacy, less security. The problem is, there is a lot going on hidden under the digital shroud called ‘the Web’ than we would like to know.

Halfway through the nineties, when my job was to do web development and design for a major Internet Service Provider, we received a court order to dig up some guy’s email that was hosted with our free email service at that time. The reason? There was the evidence of a person using our free email system plotting by email to murder someone.

At that time, it was the first time I started to realize that underneath this whole wonder that is called the Internet, was a very dark and shadowy place. The coming of Napster which brought the attention to illegally downloading actually illuminated this area a little more. Not so much because of the downloading, but how active people were supporting a criminal act. Sure, on it’s own it was not something major, and it pushed the digital evolution in a way it needed to go to offer us now elements like cloud computing, media streaming and social networks.

But it also showed something else; nobody really understood the foundation for what we knew about media was shaking. The Internet was not of one country, and so it could not have laws. And a minority, but a very vocal minority, was – and is – very much hanging in there to support that thought; the Internet is the area where there are no laws and you can be whoever you want to be.

And ‘sadly’, that is reality. ‘Sadly’ because the power of the Internet is also the biggest threat. Just like how the ultimate form of democracy is allowing the people to vote to get rid of democracy, the ultimate version of the Internet is it being unmetered and unfiltered. A place where systems can communicate without boundaries.

What the general population see as the Internet, the thing you go on with Google, Bing or Yahoo!, is only a thin layer. It is not about websites, social networks and your iPad being able to stream YouTube videos. The Internet are all computers connected to it, able to communicate with each other. Computers. Not just the browsers running on the computers. And computers are more than machines that allow you to read the morning news; your smart phone you own today might have the power of all the workstations that were needed to land Neil Armstrong on the moon. Let’s think about that or compare it to something else; your phone, the one in your hand right now or in your pocket, is way more complicated and powerful than the Voyager that recently left our solar system.

And those powerful machines can talk to each other. And we love the conveniences that can bring; Internet Banking, online auctions, checking your mortgage, requesting your vehicle registration online, checking your medical records, and finding the phone number of the girl you secretly like so much (creepy!).

Better yet, we are relying on these things. You want to know in a minute if you can get a credit card, can afford that car or house, or even shop for that new dress on Amazon during your boss’s hours. But in the meanwhile, that space that is the Internet is also handled for other actions. Some quite more shady, and secretive.

The issue is that the Internet is not a country, it actually doesn’t have police and law didn’t catch up with it yet. It is the first global nation, and it should be treated that way. But that means that a lot of people are sharing, people with different opinions, values, and feeling of pride or patriotism.

Real life terrorism; where 9/11, but more recently also the public school drama in Pakistan, are major examples of are so terrifying because they form an easy identifiable threat to life and our way of living. We can connect it to religion, and give it a global location that is – hopefully – always far from our beds. And I understand that, but at the same time we have build the foundation of our way of life very effectively online and on the Internet; which is also the way to go (don’t get me wrong there). But it is a foundation that is accessible to anyone, to use, or abuse.

So why is this Sony cyber-attack such a show-case of the future of terrorism, that most likely will be way more effective than ‘real-life’ terrorism? Simple, it can be done from a safe distance anywhere in the world, and the world of the Internet is still evolving. It is not even close to whatever it is going to be. And with that evolving come wonderful opportunities, but also a lot of threats. A lot of things are done for the first time, and because of that, a security issue. People, and the systems, are not yet able to really be safe, simply because the way it is evolving is done by making mistakes.

The Sony attack might not even have been a technical advance feat. Stealing a laptop and discovering a file called ‘passwords.txt’ might be all that was to it. But look at security threats like the heartbleed leak that caused so much trouble earlier this year. Security has come so far already, but it is not even close to what it will need to be. And until that time (and even then) there will be threats. Hacking to retrieve personal information, even stolen identities, are a threat now that people start to realize and understand, but will be ironed out relatively soon. It shows the holes in our system of identities and relating it to financial situations. That will be taken care of.

But the Sony cyber-attack also came with another message; a real-life threat of terrorism at any cinema that will show the movie ‘The Interview’ from Seth Rogen and James Franco. The premiere in New York has already been cancelled. It might be a hoax, it might be nothing, because an online threat is easily made. But a company like Sony has to respond in the right way; and like it or not, they did the right thing to take no risks; and allow any cinema to not show the movie even if they already got it. Seth Rogen and James Franco already cancelled their interview to promote the movies. And this is the threat; in the wake of real life terrorism, we will not take any risks. We cannot afford any risks of some lunatic threatening us. Maybe the hack was done by hackers from North Korea to boycott the movie ‘The Interview’ which was originally called ‘Kill Kim-Jong Un’, maybe some lone wolf out there just making a mess (do not always suspect that security in these big organizations to be top-notch). No matter what, we, as a people, cannot take those risks. Because only one out of a million stupid threats issued online each day to people has to be the real thing to become a very scary thing.

This is the reason why I am not pro- but also not completely against what the CIA tries to do online. Someone needs to be a cop in this area, and even though what they are doing is unethical, maybe, at this time, it might prevent us from worse. I honestly do not know. But ignoring the threat of cyber-terrorism will destroy our way of life eventually.

The internet needs to evolve much more than it already did. And the threats and insecurity come with the benefits that we all enjoy. So we need to be careful, and realize what it really is, it is a dangerous, but beautiful place.

And with this, I also show my active support to Howard Stern; because the man understands this issue much better than the Daily News clearly does.


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