Network failures. Colossal data breaches. Global online privacy problems. The bad news reignites debate. Do Internet troubles necessitate a new start? Is it time to push the 'reset' button? But others say that cyberspace is improving and will go much further -- even solving a long list of historic problems. One thing is indisputable: The Internet is changing rapidly before our eyes.
Credit: Shutterstock/Christian Delbert
Back in 2007, The Christian Science Monitor asked the question: Is it time to scrap the Internet and start over?
The issue at that time was: “Americans are treating their PC as a second TV. Few are ready to place a couch in front of their monitors, but millions are plopping down in front of Internet services such as YouTube, Joost, and television network websites to watch online shows and movies.”
Fast-forward to Independence Day 2015, and network infrastructure capacity problems seem minor.
Nevertheless, an ever-growing list of problems that includes major data breaches, government surveillance controversies regarding privacy, global threats of cyberwar, critical infrastructure vulnerabilities that can be exploited online and deliberate attempts to undermine emergency management communications through disinformation campaigns, and some experts are asking the question (again): Do we need to build a new Internet to be safe and secure?
The current criticism goes something like this: Hackers, breaches and the lack of privacy has gotten so out of control, we need “a flood” to wipe it all away. We need to start over from scratch.
There is plenty of finger-pointing and blame to go around regarding online problems. Some studies say we have a leadership problem. Others are upset that when data breaches happen, few are held accountable.
Meanwhile, others say that the growth and importance of the Internet of Things (IoT) into every area of life requires new networks that can’t be hacked.
Autonomous cars, critical infrastructures and 3-D virtual worlds were never even imagined when the Internet began, so why not split them off into separate domains? Or perhaps someone could build a bridge to connect the various worlds just like your work intranet is connected to the Internet.
Various forms of this Internet reset question have come up over the past two decades – but finding answers seems to be getting even more complex. The NY Times asked similar questions in 2009. The topic arose again in 2013 after the NSA surveillance programs were reported. Also in 2013, ZDNet described Bruce Schneier’s vision for redesigning the Internet.
In 2014, The Atlantic magazine offered: The promise of a new Internet – saying, “It’s not too late to rebuild this thing for the people.”
Indeed, some of the same Internet questions were asked back in the mid-'90s with the launch of Internet2. While the major focus of Internet2 has been increasing network speed for research, there has also been a recent focus on security, innovation and privacy as well.
And these calls for online change are not just in the United States.
The BBC declared that the "Internet is broken" in 2012, and described 2011 this way:
“Last year, the level and ferocity of cyber-attacks on the internet reached such a horrendous level that some are now thinking the unthinkable: to let the internet wither on the vine and start up a new more robust one instead....
We can have areas of the internet that are governed by a global body and run on technologies which are inherently secure, and we can have areas which are known to be uncontrolled.
They can coexist using the same physical networks, personal computers and user interface to access both but they would be clearly segregated such that a user would have to make a clear choice to leave the default safe zone and enter what has been described as ‘the seediest place on the planet’.”
And remember the “ferocity” of cyberattacks described back in 2011 was before the Snowden revelations or the string of major breaches that included Target, Sony and the federal government over the past three years.
This CBS 60 Minutes video is one example of current Internet vulnerabilities that Americans fear with cars.
A More Hopeful Future?
Not to worry, some say. These online difficulties are just minor bumps on an exciting technology road that will lead to a much better world.
The growth of new technologies, the emergence of the Internet of Things (IoT), more sophisticated robots, Internet2, the control of IP-address governance, the promise of autonomous vehicles and much more have excited experts who describe the Internet of the future as touching every area of our lives, including inside our clothes and even within our bodies.
If you are looking for proof, there are hundreds of exciting new innovative startup companies that offer new opportunities and hope for the future – from massive solar panel factories to fertility treatments to friendly robots.
What about computer security in the future? Cybersecurity will totally change in a world of quantum computers, according to experts.
Even Network World magazine sees positive signs for the future of cybersecurity. Here’s a quote from an article written less than two months ago:
“There's a growing realization that cybersecurity requires budgetary commitment, sincere collaboration, and a solid stratagem. If the enterprise can pull together, with government backing and the right expertise, we can build a bright future that's secure from cybercriminals.”
So which one is it? Should we be optimists or pessimists regarding the future of the Internet?
There are no easy answers to this question, and The Atlantic magazine points out the trouble with sweeping questions about the Internet:
“Can the cellphone help end global poverty?”
“Can Facebook promote world peace?”
“Can the Internet defeat Putin?”
Those are headlines from some recent articles, and the questions they pose are loaded and misleading. You can tell by a close reading of the pieces that follow—inevitably, they either fail to answer their headline questions, or end up answering a different question altogether. ...
The Internet is not, nor will ever be, the primary, systematic cause of real political change any more than lanterns—“one if by land, two if by sea”—were the primary cause of the American revolution….
Change Happening Now
What is clear is that the Internet is being transformed before our eyes. Internet growth statistics are astounding, and future growth predictions are even more amazing for the Internet of Things. Here’s an excerpt:
No doubt, we cannot just throw away the legacy systems and start over, but IoT offers a huge new opportunity for positive change. Sadly, the security vulnerabilities found in most early IoT apps and devices don’t bode well for the near-term future of the wider Internet.
A quick analogy may help summarize my thoughts on this topic. Earlier this summer, my family was in Ocean City (OC), MD, for vacation and my work. Although I grew up in Maryland and visited the beach almost every year, I haven’t visited OC for several years, since we now live in Michigan. I was amazed how many things have changed, while several parts of the city still stay the same.
In some ways, the Internet is evolving like Ocean City and many other globalized cities in America. I agree with The Atlantic magazine article that the Internet both reflects and affects society at large. Still, as I have written before, the Internet is also like an accelerator, which speeds up trends for better and for worse in society.
While I’m not as optimistic as Michelle Drolet regarding near-term successes regarding cyberdefense, there must be a pragmatic middle. Things continue to get worse online at the current time, with the bad guys still well ahead of the good guys.
And yet, I do believe that security professionals must continue to strive and come up with new answers to cybersecurity problems in company enterprises – and at the same time continue to advocate for changes in our global cyberspace.
Cybersecurity professionals can add value by offering secure technology solutions – whether that involves the cloud, mobile computing, big data or the Internet of things.
So if you think we need to start over and rebuild the Internet – it’s happening now.
Grab a shovel.