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Evaluating The Health of The Internet


The internet is a great place to learn and share knowledge. It also turns out to be a great place for hackers to pull pranks on society. In 2017 the age of hacking is far from over. In many ways it's escalating, especially after Wikileaks confirmed in March 2017 that the CIA hacks smartphones and other electronic devices of unsuspecting Americans.

Is it just to track down terrorists? If so, how come they haven't eradicated every terrorist on Earth by now? The terrorist population can't be more than 1% of the world's population. Personally, I've met over 20,000 people in my life and I can't say that any of them were terrorists.

The internet is over 20 years old. In fact, if you count the day it first launched from UCLA in 1969, it's several decades old. What's up with this long, long time frame of the government, which is who invented this medium, not knowing how to control it after all these years? I know, we're conditioned to accept cybercrime as a normal fact of life. That's what they tell us, plus if you listen to the top IT professionals in the tech industry, it's getting worse every year.

Is there an internet doctor in the house? Oh, wait, here comes the solution. Another anti-virus program, supposedly better than the last. Will it stop the dark forces of cybercrime forever? Hell no, because it never does, at least not up to this point. The answer has always been: invest in more sophisticated (and more expensive) software. Is the best software bulletproof against even the dumbest hackers? Apparently not.

Quick History of Hacking

I'm writing this piece on March 25, 2017, reflecting on several decades of hacking in the news. You'll recall that TVs and radios didn't have hacking problems last century, although we learned with Watergate in the 1970s that phones can be tapped. You may be aware that both Steve Jobs and Bill Gates started out as hackers in that era, so hacking has been around at least that long.

The earliest known hacker is sometimes cited as 1960s MIT graduate Bill Gosper (no relation to me, although at one time my family name was in fact Gosper until it was changed to Cosper in the 19th century). Gosper taught at Stanford University starting in 1974.

The term "hacker" at one time was distinguished from "cracker." Hackers, such as Gosper, were the good guys who tested software for vulnerabilities, whereas crackers were the cyber criminals. Through widespread misuse by mainstream media, the term "hacker" came to be associated with the bad guys. These days only the most geeky techies still use the original definitions in a strict sense.

The popularity of the internet skyrocketed in the mid 90s, but back then hacking damage tended to be limited to just frozen screens. With the advent of broadband in the early 2000s, ecommerce sites began to proliferate, which attracted a new generation of hackers who now could steal credit card numbers and other confidential information. Now in 2017 the rise of "The Internet of Things" (IoT), aka "Big Data" is giving cyber criminals even more reasons to hack, hack, hack. The digitization of everything imaginable and the app craze are fueling IoT's popularity.

The supposed superpower to block hackers for many years was McAfee software, launched by John McAfee in 1987. He sold the company to Intel in 2010 for $7.68 billion. But the software had a history of being flawed, even after Intel's acquisition. John McAfee, a former NASA programmer, told the BBC in 2014 that he was relieved to rid himself of "the worst software on the planet" that he created. These days McAfee guests on many talk shows such as Larry King, warning audiences about how computers and smartphones no longer are secure and that the government, particularly the CIA has the power to invade anyone's privacy.

For Those Who Think Hacking Is No Big Deal

Hacking isn't necessarily performed by geniuses. All it takes is software that does the hacking while the hacker is on the golf course or wherever. There are various types of programs designed to crack passwords to get into confidential accounts. A "dictionary hack," for example, involves days or even weeks of a program testing out zillions of character combinations per minute. Eventually, if the hacker doesn't give up and move on to the next opportunity, it may crack the code.

The government has even more sophisticated tools to record conversations from the built-in microphones on devices, according to McAfee. At the same time, McAfee has pointed out that even the FBI has been hacked in recent years, not to mention politicians. Even Google's SSL certificate got hacked in 2011, despite its focus on security certificates depicted by the "https" protocol. The company that issued Google's encrypted certificate was DigNotar, according to a PC World article dated August 30, 2011 with the title "Google One of Many Victims in SSL Certificate Hack."

As many as a million Google Androids were hacked in 2016 by malware called "Gooligan," as reported by HackerNews.com. In 2016 Google's State of Website Security reported a 32% increase in breached sites compared with the previous year.

If big corporations and the government can still get hacked, so can anyone. Hackers aren't necessarily kids in a garage or foreign governments. Some hackers are looking to steal identities or money while others want to make statements to entities they oppose. Malware is a type of bug that can damage hardware as well as software. The latest type of malware that is particularly creepy is ransomware, in which the attacker cuts off access to data until the computer owner agrees to pay a ransom fee. If the owner refuses, the attacker may destroy data.

So far the strongest solution that techies have come up with to block hackers is encryption combined with several protection layers, such as a server within a server. There are also machine learning programs that monitor networks for malware 24/7 then detect and block intruders. Even so, according to former NSA and CIA spy Edward Snowden, any electronic device can be hacked.

My Macs Have Never Been Attacked

Regardless of all this internet hacking, I've now had three Macs in my life since 2002 and none have ever been attacked (I regularly check for bugs). Yet the three Windows computers I've owned all got riddled with bugs that slowed the systems down, not to mention every place I've worked insisted on running Windows and each of those machines ran sluggishly slow. So I gave up on Windows long ago after OS system Vista turned out to be a worthless flop in 2008. If you don't believe Microsoft has been responsible for much of the virus hysteria, then read up on how their awful browser Internet Explorer was banned in Germany and discontinued after 2016. Anyone still playing with versions older than IE 11 is flirting with disaster, since it's vulnerable to all kinds of bugs.

Apple Store employees in San Diego have told me the key to the robust security of Macs is that it's closed source software, while Microsoft is open source, allowing third party programmers to have access to their code. It makes sense to a degree, at least more sense than what diehard Microsoft fans have insisted, that more people use Windows, which is why it's a more frequent target. The reason that argument rings hollow and sounds more like PR that brags about Windows popularity, is that Mac has climbed above 10% market share this past decade, which represents millions of users. To pretend that's obscure is somewhat ridiculous.

No, this is not a paid PR piece for Apple, even though I admit it's my favorite brand in the tech world. I will also admit that my 10 year old iPhone, which I purchased in 2007, is on its deathbed, mainly due to built-in battery obsolescence, which all smartphone makers are guilty of. They learned that from the auto biz, which purposely creates parts not meant to last so that you're forced to replace parts every 5-10 years. For some people who think that's a big hassle, they just buy new cars, which makes the auto biz even happier.

By the way, my iPhone was hacked in 2014, exactly when service expired for it, based on the California Lemon Law, which requires electronics manufactures who sell to consumers in the state to provide maintenance service for at least seven years following the sale of a new product. The DDOS attack, however, happened shortly after my ex-provider AT&T installed a new sim card.

Maybe It's All Just a Dream

People who spend this much time discussing hacks and spies are often called "tin foil hat-wearing conspiracy nuts." To accuse our own government of spying on us sounds ridiculous, indeed. Yet, our own government officials have admitted it, so it's more the deniers who are living in a dream world. So I'm thinking about dropping out of the smartphone revolution, even though I've got nothing to hide. I just don't feel like investing in devices that can be used to spy on me. The only people who call me anymore are telemarketers anyway, which I don't have time for.

Created by Alex Cosper