Tag Archives: history of the internet

A Cyber Attack Managed To Shut Down A Major US Pipeline: Why We Should Be (Very) Concerned

In general, fearmongering is not productive. It’s one thing to raise awareness or express concern about an issue. It’s quite another to say that it’ll lead to the end of the world as we know it and everyone should drop what they’re doing immediately to address it.

One is a serious, substantive conversation.

The other is outright panic porn mixed with doom-saying.

This is why certain alarmists are hard to take seriously. I believe that climate change is real. I believe it’s a serious issue. However, I think those who just publicly yell about how awful the situation is and how terrible it’s bound to get aren’t helping. They’re just making it easier for people to write off valid concerns as fearmongering.

I don’t want to fall into that trap whenever I talk about issues I think warrant serious concern. At the very least, I’d like to raise reasonable awareness about an issue that may very well affect large swaths of people, both locally and globally. Even if an issue is urgent, we can’t let fearmongering obscure the issue.

Having said all that, I want to state outright that we should all be very concerned about the recent cyber attack on a major pipeline in the southern United States. You may not have felt its effects yet, but it’s likely you’ll notice the next time you have to gas up your car. To appreciate just how serious this attack was, here’s the story from Reuters.

Reuters: Cyber attack shuts down U.S. fuel pipeline ‘jugular,’ Biden briefed

Top U.S. fuel pipeline operator Colonial Pipeline shut its entire network, the source of nearly half of the U.S. East Coast’s fuel supply, after a cyber attack on Friday that involved ransomware.

The incident is one of the most disruptive digital ransom operations ever reported and has drawn attention to how vulnerable U.S. energy infrastructure is to hackers. A prolonged shutdown of the line would cause prices to spike at gasoline pumps ahead of peak summer driving season, a potential blow to U.S. consumers and the economy.

“This is as close as you can get to the jugular of infrastructure in the United States,” said Amy Myers Jaffe, research professor and managing director of the Climate Policy Lab. “It’s not a major pipeline. It’s the pipeline.”

Now, before you start freaking out about the possibility of terrorists hacking major utilities, it’s worth looking at this attack in context. This was not an attack done in the mold of the movie, “Live Free Or Die Hard.” These criminals were not Hans Gruber or some super-hacker in the mold of “Tron.” This was a ransomware attack.

For those not familiar with cyber crimes, a ransomware attack is when someone gets into a network or a specific computer and installs a piece of software that effectively locks all your drives. The only way to unlock it is to pay the hacker a certain sum of money, often in Bitcoin.

In general, these cyber-criminals are out to cause chaos and destroy entire countries. They’re just looking for some money. I guess in that sense they are like Hans Gruber.

For most people, there are established procedures to protect against ransomware and to weed it out. However, that’s just for personal computers and basic IT infrastructure in an average company. This attack hit a major utility. That fundamentally changes the context of this attack.

Ransoming someone with poor computer skills is one thing. That person will only suffer so much loss and frustration if they cannot save their data. A major utility is very different by orders of magnitude. Utilities like the Colonial Pipeline are critical for the basic functioning of our infrastructure. Shutting them down, even for a brief period, can cause a lot of damage.

On top of that, you’d think that a major utility would have some pretty robust cyber security, but you’d be distressingly wrong. Major government networks are still routinely hacked and hacked successfully. While most of these attacks are after personal data, the idea of a more malicious cyber attack is not an unreasonable concern at this point.

If a simple ransomware attack can disrupt a major pipeline, then what could a more coordinated attack do? It’s a disturbing question with equally disturbing answers. Remember, those who attacked the Colonial Pipeline were just after money. Imagine if they were looking to cause serious damage and loss of life.

This kind of cyber attack is not the stuff of science fiction and sub-par Die Hard movies. It has happened in the real world, the most famous being the Stuxnet attack that crippled Iran’s nuclear weapons program. That was a government-on-government attack that had major geopolitical ramifications.

Also, that’s just an attack we know about. I don’t think it takes an elaborate conspiracy theory to surmise that there have been other attacks like this that have not been made public. Some of those attacks might be many times scarier than either Stuxnet or the Colonial Pipeline.

This is all serious cause for concern. With each passing year, the world is becoming more connected and more tech savvy. An entire generation is coming up in a world where the internet is everywhere, both in industrialized nations and in developing countries. Like every generation before it, there will be conflict. It just won’t be fought in the same ways we’re used to.

If it’s possible to shut down a country’s pipelines, electricity, and communication networks without ever dropping a bomb or deploying a single troop, then we can’t assume it’ll never happen. We also can’t assume that it will, especially if we actively work on addressing the issue.

We managed to do that with nuclear weapons. We should make a similar effort with cyber attacks. We just learned that hackers can disrupt a major utility using a type of attack that is almost a decade old. Let’s not wait for another bolder attack on a larger target.

That still doesn’t mean freaking out and trying to live off the grid. It just means doing the necessary work to improve computer security, both on a personal level, as well as a governmental level. I don’t claim to be an expert in either, but if we can all do our part by just not having such an easily guessable password, we can all make a difference.

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Filed under Current Events, politics, real stories, technology

Why Starlink Is The Next Step In The Evolution Of The Internet

Say what you will about Elon Musk. Believe me, a lot can be said about a Tony Stark wannabe whose wealth is on par with Jeff Bezos. Not all of it is flattering, either. I know I’ve expressed a strong appreciation for him in the past. I genuinely believe some of the technology he’s working on will change the world.

I don’t deny that he can be eccentric.

I also don’t deny he says dumb things, often on Twitter.

The man has his faults, but thinking small isn’t one of them. You don’t get to be as rich or successful as Elon Musk by being careful. You also don’t create world-changing technology by being short-sighted. Love him or hate him, Musk has changed the world. He’ll likely change it even more in the coming years.

Some of those changes are years away. A product like Neuralink is probably not going to become mainstream in this decade. However, there is one that’s likely to change the world a lot sooner. In fact, it’s already up and running to some extent. It’s just in the beta phase. Some people can already use it and it’s already proving its worth.

That technology is called Starlink and I believe this will change the internet in a profound way.

Now, you can be forgiven for not keeping up with all of Elon Musk’s elaborate ventures. This one isn’t quite as sexy as brain implants or rockets, but it’s every bit as groundbreaking. If you value internet speeds that don’t suck or lag, then it should be of great interest.

In essence, Starlink is the name and brand of a new satellite-based internet service provider that Musk is creating through his other ambitious venture, SpaceX. The goal is simple on paper, but resource intensive. Instead of the messy network of ground-based hardware that most providers use to deliver the internet to hour homes and businesses, Starlink will deliver it from space.

It’s actually not a new idea or product, for that matter. Satellite based internet service has been around for years. In terms of speeds and utility, though, it just sucks. At most, you’d be lucky to get speeds on par with old school 3G wireless. For some people, that’s better than nothing. For most, it’s not nearly enough to maximize the full power of the internet.

Starlink is hoping to change that. Instead of expensive satellites with high latency and limited bandwidth, these new brand of low-Earth satellites promise to deliver on speeds at or greater than the best 4G internet providers.

On top of that, you don’t need the same elaborate infrastructure and or cell towers to deliver it. You just need a constellation of satellites, a receiver no larger than a pizza box, and a clear view of the sky. If you have all that, you can get the full breadth of the internet. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the middle of the desert or at the top of the Empire State Building. It’s there for you to access.

Make no mistake. That’s a big deal for the 3.8 billion people in the world who don’t have internet access. Whether due to lack of infrastructure or funds, it’s just not an option for them. It’s not just underdeveloped third-world countries either. Even here in America, there are large swaths of the country that have little to no reliable internet access.

It’s a big factor in the ongoing divide between rural and urban areas. If you live in a small rural community full of good, honest, hard-working people, they’re still going to struggle if they don’t have reliable internet. They’ll struggle economically, socially, and financially. To date, the efforts to expand the internet to their communities has been lackluster at best.

I can personally attest how bad it is. A few years back, I drove through a very rural part of West Virginia. For a good chunk of that drive, there was pretty much no reliable internet, be it Wi-Fi or cell phone coverage. The people there didn’t hide their frustration and I certainly sympathized with them.

There are many reasons for this, not all of which is because of how awful cable companies can be. A bit part of that has to do with the tools we use to access the internet. As good as they are for urban areas, they don’t work on a global level. It’s one thing to wire a big, advanced city like New York with fiber optics. It’s quite another to wire an entire planet.

Starlink promises to change that. These satellites aren’t bound by those logistics. They just orbit overhead without us even realizing it. They’re small and easy to mass produce. They can be taken out of orbit easily and replaced with better models. In principle, they could easily deliver the same high level gigabit speeds that are currently at the top of the market.

In terms of opening the internet to the rest of the world, that’s a big deal.

In terms of disrupting the market for delivering the internet, that’s an even bigger deal.

That’s because, to date, the world wide web has struggled to be truly world-wide. When nearly half the world can’t access it, then you can’t truly call it a global network. With Starlink, the internet can become truly global. People in rural India can have access to the same internet speeds as people in downtown Los Angeles. That promises to open up the world up in ways we can’t predict.

It’ll also provide some badly needed competition to internet delivery. For most people in America, you don’t have much choice when it comes to internet service. Cable companies basically have a monopoly on the whole enterprise, which is a big reason why it’s so expensive compared to other countries. Starlink will be the first real competition they’ve had in years for many areas.

I don’t doubt those companies will complain, whine, and lobby, but they’re not going to stop something like Starlink. They’re also not going to muscle out someone like Elon Musk. You don’t become the world’s richest person by being a push-over. Musk has already made clear that Starlink is a big part of his business model for the future.

At the moment, Starlink is still in beta, but Musk himself proves the technology works. He even used it to send a tweet. There are people right now who are testing it and they can confirm its speeds are way better than the crappy DSL internet of yesteryear. Many others have also expressed a keen interest in buying into this service.

At the moment, it’s still expensive. It costs $99 a month to access Starlink and it also costs $500 to buy the necessary antenna to receive it. However, that’s not a whole lot more than what I pay for internet in a month. Once it’s refined, that cost will come down.

Remember, there are over 3 billion people in the world without internet who have no options to access it. Starlink could be their only option and it could be a damn good one. It could be the key to the rest of the world becoming truly connected. That has big implications for society, commerce, and governments. Some countries are already making Starlink illegal for its people to access. Don’t expect that to stop it, though.

The promise of fast, reliable internet at all corners of the globe is too enticing for too many people. It will both connect the world and make Elon Musk even richer. However, for a man who connected the world and pissed off cable companies, I’d say he’ll have earned it.

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Filed under Current Events, futurism, Neuralink, technology

Remembering (And Celebrating) Your First Email Address

People of a certain age still remember what life was like before the internet. Trying to describe that age to someone under the age of 21 is like trying to describe a lost civilization. Some just can’t wrap their head around the idea that getting information involved using books, asking a professional, or just giving up entirely.

I consider myself lucky. I do remember the pre-internet days, but for the vast majority of my life, I’ve had access to it. I also came from a family that embraced it fairly early. I had access to a computer long before some of my friends. We didn’t entirely know what to do with it, but I loved exploring it and the digital world it offered.

It culminated, so to speak, when I finally got to make my first email account. That might not seem like a big deal now, but you have to understand that this was a time when few people had access to the internet, let alone an email address. We still called each other on the phone. I’ll give teenagers a moment to stop cringing.

That first email address was mostly a novelty for me. It was also kind of tedious to set up. It was an AOL address, back during an era when AOL ruled the internet. I didn’t know what I’d use it for. This was around 1997. The internet was still such a novelty. We didn’t realize at the time how revolutionary it would be.

Hindsight has revealed plenty, but I can still say with pride that I have that old email address. It’s still active. I still use it regularly. It’s not the center of my internet world anymore, but I kind of take comfort that I’m still using this email address that I set up before high school.

That’s not the case for most of the people I know. Aside from email that was set up exclusively for work, most say they don’t use that first email address they created. For some, it has long since been deactivated. I can’t say I blame them. Some of those early email addresses were clunky and hard to remember.

Those that still have their first email address, and regularly use it, tend to have a unique perspective on the internet. Even those younger than me treat it differently from all the other email addresses they have. Considering how some people have dozens, that’s quite a feat.

With that in mind, I’d like you to take a moment to recount your first internet experiences. It might just help you appreciate how far you’ve come in this digital world we’ve all come to know so well.

What was the first email address you ever created? What did you use it for?

Did you realize at the time why it was so important?

Do you still use that first email address?

How many email addresses do you have in total?

How many have you abandoned or closed?

How much does email impact your day-to-day life?

For young people, these questions may be a bit harder to answer. There’s an entire generation coming of age that has always lived in a world that has the internet. For them, having an internet connection is akin to having clothes. It’s a necessity to function in the current world.

For those in my age range or older, it’s easier to take a broader view of how the internet has impacted your life. They’re still difficult questions to answer, albeit in a unique way. We can remember what life was like without it. Whether you remember that period fondly or not is entirely personal, but there’s no denying the extent of the impact.

I encourage anyone reading this to appreciate this perspective. Take a moment, if you can, to think about that first email address you had and how it impacted your life. Regardless of your age, it helps you see just how far you’ve come and that’s worth celebrating.

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Filed under philosophy, Thought Experiment