• The Internet as a weapon of mass destruction?

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    AL S. VITANGCOL III

    I WAITED anxiously for days to watch the Explorer’s re-airing of the episode featuring “Drugs, Death and Duterte” at the National Geographic Channel. It is hosted by Aasif Mandvi, an Indian-American actor, comedian and writer.

    The “Drugs, Death, and Duterte” documentary film was presented by National Geographic correspondent Ryan Duffy purportedly to look closely AT President Duterte’s deadly war on drugs. Honestly, the documentary film is not worth watching for several reasons. So, let us forget about it for now.

    As an information technology practitioner, my attention was caught by the talk show portion where the featured celebrity guest was Ted Koppel, the longtime host of “Nightline.” Koppel talked about his new book, Lights Out: A Cyberattack, a Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath.

    Koppel said, “think of the Internet for a moment as a weapon of mass destruction.” That kept me riveted to the TV screen.

    We all use the Internet. We all complain when our Internet connection is slow. We all seem to feel inadequate when the Internet is “down.” But, what really is the Internet?

    Technically speaking, the Internet is a global system of interconnected networks of computers that uses the TCP/IP communications protocol to link the various devices worldwide. TCP/IP stands for transmission control protocol/internet protocol. The Internet carries a wide range of services, including the most popular World Wide Web (www), which most people use for “browsing”.

    There is no standard definition of what the Internet is. In reality, the Internet can be anything that we may want it to be.

    Some people use the Internet simply for sending out and receiving electronic mail. Others live their fantasy worlds and post them in their Facebook accounts and other social media accounts. The more serious ones exploit the Internet as a vast electronic library, searching the web for data, documents and other important stuff.
    Koppel continued: “I am talking about the real possibility that some enemy of the United States will launch a cyber attack on one of our three electric power grids— plunging tens of millions of people into darkness for weeks, or even months. No electric light, or heat or refrigeration. No running water, no waste disposal. That’s not a fictional scenario.”

    He said that unlike any other kind of threat the United States had ever faced, it can be very difficult tracking the source, the origin of the cyber attack. One might assume that the US government has formulated special plans to deal with the aftermath of such an attack. So, is there a plan? “No,” Koppel said.

    Who are capable of waging a cyber attack? Reports say that the Russians and the Chinese could do it. There are some concerns that North Korea and Iran are on it, too.

    I browsed the contents of Lights Out! and found out that it only pertains to the crippling of some, or all, of three electricity power grids that distributes electricity in the US mainland. Koppel claims that the Chinese are already in the electric power grids and it will take only a stroke of a key (or a push of a mouse button) to bring down the power grid and cause a massive blackout – lights out!

    Koppel failed to note that cyber attacks are more than that. Enemies of the state, or even terrorists, will not target the electric power grids only. It’s much more than meets the eye.

    A few days ago, the Bank of the Philippine Islands (BPI) was hit by a system glitch resulting in double postings of previous transactions, thus causing erroneous balances. The bank issued an advisory claiming that it was “due to an internal data processing error.”

    Catherine Santamaria, the BPI senior vice president for retail banking, was quick to say that there was no hacking involved: “It has nothing to do with that, we at BPI have the highest security standards.”

    Santamaria must be reminded that there are various ways by which a system hack can be effected. Even companies with the highest security standards can be hacked. Ever heard of social engineering? Or an insider’s hack? These hacks can be done with ease – for they will not go through the network security but directly at the authorized users’ keyboards.

    I should know. I have investigated these things before. (The author is the Philippines’ first certified computer hacking forensic investigator.)

    BPI account holders can perform online banking. On what platform is this done? Of course, through the Internet.

    The Internet is one of the most wonderful and useful inventions in the modern history of mankind. It was originally conceived and designed for instantaneous exchange of information and as a form of fault-tolerant communication.

    However, it can be used for something sinister, something evil, something destructive. My space is running out, so let me discuss this some other time. Or, I could write my fifth book and use the title of today’s column.

    If the systems you are using are not online, meaning not connected to the Internet, then you have nothing to worry about and you can then sleep soundly.

    However, the Internet can still be a weapon of mass destruction.

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