The soft underbelly of the Internet

I have been a professional Web site developer for 13 years, and have watched the Internet become integrated into everyday life in ways I never imagined would be so rapid and far-reaching.

When Federal Express was born in 1971, it was impressive to be able to get something delivered in one day. Shortly thereafter consumer fax machines arrived and we’d be on the phone – “I’m still waiting for that fax you said you sent five minutes ago!” Then Internet e-mail began, and the expectation of its arrival in two seconds flat. Perhaps impatience is the true mother of invention.

Familiarity with Internet technology, its highly accessible nature and increasing ubiquity in our lives has lead to feelings of comfort and dependence (E-mail Addicts Anonymous?). In the same way in which we have come to depend upon the reliability and comfort of television and its integration into our lives, so do we now think of the Internet. Compared to the Internet, however, television is uncomplicated and simple. What we see on television is a commonly broadcast one-way transmission, traditionally delivered from centralized broadcasting facilities. The Internet is an entirely different kind of creature.

The Web is inherently bi-directional; we both receive and transmit data when we use it. In addition, the data we receive does not originate from one centralized location, but is widely dispersed, gathered from Web-connected multiple locations and equipment. Moreover, the data moves through myriad switches and networks that divide it into “packets” of information delivered at near light-speed to specific machines.

The computers on which data originates for the Internet are called Web servers, and like other Web-connected computers, are bi-directional; they are engineered for data to be sent and received. The data also includes instructions, such as “show this page or this information,” which is why “hyperlinks” work at all. Think of this functionality as a computer “doorway” which opens in two directions. In order to get data in, of course, one must have a key to the door. In some cases, the door is simply left unlocked and open, leaving anyone to interact with the server. In other cases, what we like to call “secure” servers, the door requires a coded “key,” and herein lays the soft and vulnerable underbelly of the Internet.

Despite the complexity of the lock on the “secure” server door, since there must be a key, the lock can be “picked” – this is one major way computers get “hacked.” Tens of thousands of entrepreneurial “hackers” from all over the globe spend endless hours breaking into servers to find credit card numbers and other valuable private information. Many are paid well for their effort; there are even hacker “how to” Web sites. The theft and fraud resulting from these security breaches reaches into the billions of dollars, and this expense is passed on to all of us. Moreover, the nature of privacy itself is undergoing a complete transformation – step outside and wave to Google Earth!

As it is inevitable that each of us will have an auto accident at some point in our lives, so will our personal and private information be stolen via the Internet; it’s a technological fact. I sometimes wonder what the world would be like if there were no secrets. We may as yet find out.