The Internet of Things

I think this video is an absolutely fascinating view of how we can maximize our internet usage. In the video, Dr. John Barrett explains how the internet has progressed from the very first public web servers in the late 80’s and early 90’s to the web today– which contains over 4000 exabytes of data. He explains how the internet now, or in the near future– the “internet of things”– is an internet in which the physical world is entirely connected and monitored by the internet. He talks about how some of our applications like traffic, news, travel agency, and restaurant apps can tell us exactly when things are available for us to use or not. For example, you can use a restaurant app to not only see how long the wait will be at a particular restaurant, but to book a table as well. In a similar manner, he says that the “internet of things” could be used in the future to improve the quality of life for everyone, especially those living in cities. For example, to send feedback from a patient’s heart monitor to a hospital, no matter where the patient is. He talks about how we can expand the use of green energy by limiting nonessential electricity use through the internet– your washing machine only turns on when there are enough clothes in it, and when energy levels are high enough to warrant it. This way, no one goes without energy, and no one has a surplus. Essentially, Dr. Barret talks about how far we’ve come, and how far we have the potential to go.

Barrett addresses the idea of “big brother” in the video as well. In order for his “internet of things” to work, basically everything important has to be monitored. But he says that he would hope that the benefits of such a system would outweigh the lack of privacy. He also addresses concerns about security risks, where one hack could bring down a vital system and cause loss of life or limb.

In any case, I think it’s good food for thought.


A New Front: Cyber Crime and Warfare in the Digital Age

This article, titled “Cybercrime, Cyberweapons, and Cyber Wars: Is There Too Much of It in the Air?” discusses how the capabilities of criminals and terrorists has evolved with the advent of increased online traffic. Criminals can produce and/or sell fake documents, malware, credit card and bank information, bulletproof web hosting, and hacking services such as DDoS attacks and bot spamming for a relatively low cost. And they still make a huge profit because the market for those things has expanded so greatly.

The use of malware and hacking techniques is not limited to the criminal underbelly of the internet. In fact, law enforcement and counter-terrorist forces have had to don the black hat in order to prevent so-called “cyber-terrorist” attacks. These attacks are easy to launch with very little skill in computer programming– in fact, according to the article, they can be waged with little more than the malware available on a petty cyber-criminal’s website. Even so, counter-cyber-terrorists seem to be one step behind their adversaries, and the effects of their efforts have been mostly negative for the general populace. Violations of privacy and freedom of information by intelligence agencies in its attempts to combat terrorism have become more and more popular in the news, especially following the Snowden leaks.

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.

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.