Alongside the wheel, the internet is probably one of man’s greatest ever inventions. It has forever changed the paradigm through which mankind communicates and processes information. The dawn of the internet, however, has brought itself with it a set of new challenges. Although mankind has always found a way to tame the internal dynamics of communication, from the telegram to the land-line phone, the internet has proven to be an animal we’ve not quite understood yet. The sheer speed at which this invention has proliferated into our everyday existence has probably caught us a little off-guard. In other words, our institutions, such as governments, have not evolved or caught up with the internet. And here lies the potholes through which we find ourselves slipping into everyday.
Substitute potholes with cyber attacks and you get the picture. Suffice to say, no government, multinational or an average consumer with an online bank account is fully safe from a cyber attack. As the internet spreads its tentacles with every passing second, storing unimaginable amounts of information, cyber attacks pose a great threat to our personal and institutional security. And in recent years, these breaches into our nerve centers of information, personal and institutional, have grown more frequent and more sophisticated. The problem is so enormous that it is virtually impossible, at this juncture, for even the world’s sharpest cyber expert to fully appreciate and mitigate this threat.
Edward Lucas’s Cyberphobia attempts to discern this frightening scenario into clear and compact chapters. For those not technologically inclined, this book presents an overview of the dangers we face and what can be done to mitigate the scenario. Lucas, a senior editor at the Economist, illustrates your everyday cyber threat through the eyes of a fictional couple named Chip and Pin Hakhett. The average cyber threat, for example, a phishing campaign, involves the use of fake emails to get a recipient to download an attachment or click a link that installs malicious software. Once the malware has entered your system, the hacker or perpetrator of this sneaky cyber attack can access and gather your personal information and possibly use it to devastating effect. However, one of the more eye-opening passages in the book is the one where Lucas talks about how simple it is for hackers to gather information to break into another person’s computer by using data publicly available on social media sites like Facebook or LinkedIn. “A central point of this book is that the fictional Hakhetts, and millions of their real-life counterparts, are getting a poor deal,” Lucas writes. “In exchange for giving up a greater amount of detail of our lives, we are not getting things that would make us safer.”
However, it is not all doom and gloom. Another key point that Lucas does raise is that unlike in our physical environment, where we take many precautions, the same is not practiced when it comes to the cyber environment. Although cyber attacks are growing increasingly sophisticated, there exist simple methods to protect your personal information. In the cyber world, a “patch” is often referred to software designed to update a computer program or its supporting data, to fix or improve it. “Sometimes his (Chip) elderly computer cannot install them (patches), and sits there frozen, with a message telling him to wait,” writes Lucas. “So he ignores them all: he has a business to run . . . Yet unpatched (out-of-date) software is a gift for attackers.”
Other, yet simpler safety measures that Lucas suggests includes the use search engines other than Google. Without getting into any details, the book describes the various techniques private institutions and governments use to protect the information of their respective consumers or citizens. However, after the Snowden revelations, where we found that governments, sometimes in cahoots with large private institutions, attempt to monitor citizens and access their personal information, it is difficult for the average man to know which way to turn for help. It is time we all wised up.