Catch Me if You Can

Go look up computer virus in google images, it’s hilarious.

You may or may not be surprised to know that viruses (and their cousins, including worms, Trojans, and malware) have existed for about as long as the internet itself. In this article by Gregory Benford, one of the first scientists to work with the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANet), Benford explains how the first virus came to be, and some of the consequences of its creation.

As Benford tells us, the very first computer virus was largely harmless but very, very annoying. It simply used a chain reaction to add bad/redundant/superfluous code to certain programs and sap the processing power on computers infected with the virus. Benford, who had created the virus himself, notified the appropriate authorities at the main ARPANet server and warned them of the potential for viruses to do actual damage to computers on the network. Nonetheless, new viruses were created, sparking an entire market for virus protection.

As technology and programming have become more and more advanced, more malicious bugs have been created to take out computing systems. Benford focuses on the famous (or perhaps infamous) worm called Stuxnet, which was used to infect and shut down an Iranian nuclear power plant in 2010. The worm used a false certificate to gain access to all computers on a network using Windows. Then it found its way into a program called Siemens Step7, which programmed many of the industrial processes of the plant. Next, it compromised the system that received input from those industrial processes and subsequently dictated changes to the output. By gaining access to the input, the creators of the worm could see exactly what processes were running in the plant and could change the output so that– essentially– the plant blew up. The worm could then replicate and spread to other computers on the network.

Benford warns in his conclusion that Stuxnet is proof that digital viruses can be used to affect the analog world. As our society becomes increasingly “connected” to computing systems, we must be vigilant and protect our networks from such viruses. The damage that potent viruses can do could be catastrophic.

If you’re interested in the Stuxnet virus and its effects, I’d recommend this article (complete with pictures!)

And here is a timeline of how viruses have evolved over time, courtesy of Wikipedia.

What is Cloud Computing?

I have to admit, I hadn’t given a second thought to what the cloud actually was until it was brought up during our brainstorm. Can you tell that I literally just googled “What is cloud computing?” I can say that without embarrassment because I know I am not the only one.

From what I’ve read, both in the article by Eric Griffith for PC Mag and various other academic papers floating around in the library database, the cloud is exactly what you would imagine it to be– a nebulous, intangible thing that still manages to hold bytes upon bytes upon bytes of information. We might not know what it is, but we know that our iTunes is in it, so it must be cool in our books.

Joking aside, the cloud is essentially a hard drive without the hard. It’s a location on the internet where information is stored or synced with other information elsewhere– all without the physical storage unit that we’re accustomed to having. Think DropBox, Google Drive, or Windows SkyDrive. Most cloud storage is provided by Google, Apple, Amazon, and Windows (both on a commercial and individual level) as well as by companies that are specifically dedicated to providing online data storage.

Over the last few years, there has been a dramatic shift towards greater use of the cloud for storage. For big businesses, it means that files can not only be shared over long distances with many different people, but that each of those people now have permanent access to those files and any changes made to them by all the people with access. Instantaneously. On a smaller scale, it means that you have access to your Chemistry lab report on your phone or your laptop or your iPad and can pull it up for your professor when you forget the hard copy after only getting 45 minutes of sleep.

The benefits of this are pretty clear: instant access to your information from various locations, the ability to share it seamlessly with others and receive feedback, and peace of mind that the nudes saved on your phone won’t be gone when you drop it in the toilet.

On the other hand, according to Griffith, there are some cons that potentially outweigh the pros, the main one being that there is no cloud where there is no internet. That means that your access to your information is entirely dependent on your internet service provider, and you are therefore a slave to their rates, fees, and inconsistent bandwidth speeds. Ultimately, if the servers that provide cloud storage crash, you’re out of luck. Like my dad always says, “Did you back up your stuff on the external hard drive yet?”

“No, Dad.”

“Well did you put it on a thumb drive?”


Mapping the Internet


Image credit to Nicolas Rapp for Fortune Magazine

This article by Andrew Blum provides a terse but relatively complete description of how “the internet” makes it from your friendly neighborhood ISP to that little box on your desk– or pad, if you’re into the whole tablet thing. He tells us about the infrastructure of the global fiber-optic cable network that oh-so-speedily transmits all of your favorite cat videos (if you’re still confused on how that works, I recommend this video from the discovery channel). He talks about the “middle-mile” and “last-mile” problems that plagued internet providers in the 90’s and 00’s– which is essentially when ISP’s asked themselves “How are we going to quickly and cost-effectively convert digital information to analog information to digital information while also moving it from Point A to Point B?”

One thing that I frequently find myself forgetting is that “free Wi-Fi” isn’t actually free. Blum explains that the cost for this magical, invisible thing we call “the internet” varies with direct proportion to the distance of Point B from Point A, i.e. the farther you are from an internet exchange point, the more you have to pay to instagram your blueberry overnight oats complete with recipe.

You’re probably thinking “Well yeah, that’s pretty obvious and totally logically sound, so why is it important and/or relevant?”

Good question, Friend! The implications of this distance to cost proportion mean that companies who can afford to purchase spaces that are physically closer to internet hubs immediately have an advantage over their competitors, who have to wait longer to receive their information. Not to mention that fast internet equals less waiting for your page to load equals more time to actually get things done, and we all know that time equals money. Q.E.D., fast internet equals money. In the grand scheme of things, this means that the speed of the internet literally has some power to dictate which companies will be successful. Spooky thought, right?

That’s not all, either! As Blum states in his article, “‘Internet exchange points’ […] for the most part, follow geography and population,” meaning that where there are people there is internet, and vice versa. This means that “boom towns” tend to crop up around new internet hubs, giving the nigh-omnipotent internet the power to physically shape our world around itself. Forget ghosts and goblins, I’m being the internet for Halloween.