When listing the big changes in human society, the invention of computers and the creation of the Internet will certainly rise above all others. Never in human history has an invention made such a dramatic impact on the world we live in. Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Google have become the symbols of the new digital age. The old borders and barriers have been broken down. The internet has created new freedoms, new opportunities, and new dangers.
From the moment working computers were available, many people saw that the new battles would be fought with keyboards rather than guns. As technology improved, we have placed much of our existence into billions of ones and zeros. This makes everyone a potential target for those of nefarious means. Unlike burglars who are limited in the number of homes they can rob, your computer has to deal with bots, hackers, and scammers from everywhere. They could be your next-door neighbor or they could be on the far side of the world.
It matters little who gets targeted and who escapes because, on the internet, there is no such thing as distance. This is what makes the Russian hacking of the US election terrifying for many countries. A hacker in Moscow or a bot built by Russian techies can influence international politics and disrupt Russia’s greatest rivals from the comfort of their own home. Even if the hack is traced, the hackers can’t be arrested or charged unless Russia does it themselves.
Many Western countries are already aware of the power and danger of the less-honorable members of the internet. Safeguards and firewalls can protect important institutions for a time, but no defense is unbreakable nor is it without weaknesses. An outdated system or a virus checker that hasn’t been upgraded provides an entrance. Human error tends to be the most common cause for hackers gaining access.
Russia is exploiting the freedom that the internet provides and using social media in a brilliantly cynical way. Clearly, there are some in the Kremlin who have figured out the potential of the system to change society. Trump’s surprise win is just the beginning. Russia is clearly ahead in the cyber-warfare arms race and the damage they can cause will dwarf any Cold War spy mission.
It’s not just Russia though. Terrorist groups, particularly ISIS, have mastered the technological gap that more traditional groups struggled with. Their digital caliphate has no borders or boundaries, making it almost impossible to block off access without affecting innocent lives. Thus the fatal paradox of the internet is revealed. Either everyone has access or no one does.
None of this is to say that Western countries are defenseless but it is painfully clear that much more needs to be done. The USA is already pouring millions into its own cyber-warfare section and others are quick to follow. Social media giants have pledged to do more to combat extremist and foreign interference, but their efforts must be coordinated. Without coordination or any intelligent thought process, any system will be little more than temporary patch systems, easily dodged or worked around.
Russia has taken its disruptive war against democracy to cyberspace. The West will catch up but until then, our only option to be constantly vigilant and aware. It will not be easy, but then again, that is the price of freedom.