Woe, woe and thrice woe

On Monday the Daily Telegraph – a leading UK broadsheet (with a thoroughly conservative pedigree) –  led with this headline:  Home gadgets open to hackers. The story was about the dangers to society in general and our individual well-being in particular, arising from the rapid growth of the internet of things.  The piece came less than two weeks after the FBI issued its warning about the way internet enabled toys – a subset of the internet of things – could pose several specific threats to children.

Not that long ago the press likewise was full of the mirai botnet drama, giving the world a hint of what a large scale hack of connected devices could achieve. “Hint” is the key word.

One of my smarter friends is convinced the arrival and pervasiveness of so many connected machines, performing perhaps intimate or highly personal tasks, maybe linked to our bodies, our homes or our kids, is going to give debates about the internet, indeed the whole technological universe or cocoon which we have constructed for ourselves, a physicality and an immediacy which hitherto has not been present. I think my clever friend is 100% correct in her assessment but is the internet of things truly an “internet issue” or is it, more prosaically, as some insist, “simply” about the design, propagation, and enforcement of adequate security standards? Actually it’s both.

But here we hit up against the first problem. One of the worst crimes anyone can commit in the eyes of tech companies is to “conflate”  what they see as being disparate issues. That’s the sort of thing only low life campaigners, know-nothing journalists and politicians do. Pitying our ignorance we are told the internet is now, in fact, a highly complex and diverse “value chain”  (horrible term) with many different types of businesses of varying sizes, functions and capacities.  We are reminded that no single company….. you know the litany. Yet in the public mind, and perhaps in the mind of a great many policy makers and headline writers, the whole thing is completely intertwined, the one inseparable from and dependent on the other. Why is that? Because that’s how they experience it. If you’re hit by a car, knowing it was because the brakes were faulty rather than it being the result of driver error may bring you some consolation, but not much.

Sitting down to tell someone their operation was cancelled and the hospital closed not because Microsoft or the “internet” did anything wrong but because that particular hospital’s network manager neglected to implement a patch is going to present a challenge.  As another terrorist or paedophile outrage appears to have a connection to cyberspace, as seemingly credible doubts are raised about the legitimacy of this or that election or referendum result “febrile” seems to be the word that best captures the mood.

I don’t think I know anybody who is seriously involved with any aspect of policy development in the technology space who truly believes the current arrangements are stable or sustainable in the longer run. There is a very strong undercurrent of opinion which privately acknowledges the next big cyber catastrophe, or maybe it will be the one after, could bring substantial parts of the internet as we know it crashing down around our heads because enough of the world’s major governments will finally agree to act in concert to insist on changes.  Some companies that are today dominant and seem solid as a rock, could disappear completely or be radically reconfigured pretty much overnight. Bits of the internet could go dark until there is a reboot.

In the face of such complexity the easy and understandable thing is to head for the bunker proclaiming  I am doing my bit, I can’t be responsible for everything. Alternatively, if you are a business, even though you know what may well be coming down the track,  you hunker down and hope it is a very long track. You go for the Travolta-Micawber-Midas strategy: staying alive, hoping that something will turn up while getting richer right up to the moment it all caves in. With a billion dollars in the bank you’ll probably be OK anyway.

This is precisely why someone somewhere should be thinking about how to construct a  pole of authority that is visibly detached from the vicissitudes of party politics, is not too enmeshed with the turbulence or short-termism of governments or money from the big companies that dominate the space today but can win the respect and attention of each of these elements. Oh, and it should be as international as possible but that should not be an obstacle to getting it up and running asap.

A tall order but those of us who value much, if not most of what the internet has brought to the modern world should really be worried that, right now, a convincing, authoritative alternative narrative which at least has a chance of carrying the day within the liberal democracies is simply not emerging or becoming grounded on a broad enough basis.

OK. So now I am going to go and put on my happy face.

About John Carr

John Carr is one of the world's leading authorities on children's and young people's use of digital technologies. He is Senior Technical Adviser to Bangkok-based global NGO ECPAT International and is Secretary of the UK's Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. John is now or has formerly been an Adviser to the Council of Europe, the UN (ITU), the EU and UNICEF. John has advised many of the world's largest technology companies on online child safety. John's skill as a writer has also been widely recognised. http://johncarrcv.blogspot.com
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