LONDON – The British media have been full of stories about cyber warfare, spying on government, company and personal communications, and misuse of the Internet to disseminate pornography. Computers and the Internet have contributed significantly to productivity in industry and commerce and are now essential tools in the administration of governments throughout the world. They are also valuable tools for learning and education.
For most consumers booking tickets and ordering goods on the Internet are part of everyday life but even such simple tasks can be frustrating and time-consuming if Internet sites are badly organized or disrupted by cyber attacks. To protect ourselves we have to set up firewalls and formulate passwords and other devices to try to ensure that our data are not compromised or misused fraudulently.
Internet companies make a lot of money by providing anti-virus protection and “apps” galore. Microsoft and Apple vie with one another to improve their software while manufacturers of hardware compete in producing new models.
Competition has made personal computers cheaper in real terms, but none of the companies involved have yet been able to produce a personal computer that will never freeze and is totally impervious to outside interference.
The practical benefits of computing must be balanced against the threats that are being exploited by governments, companies and malign individuals. The Internet has already been misused in frightening ways.
There may well be a case for using the Internet to disrupt organizations planning to use or develop nuclear weapons. It is alleged that such use of the Internet has already been made by the United States and Israel to slow down reprocessing by Iran of nuclear fuel that could be used to produce atomic weapons. But the use of cyber measures to disrupt utilities and public transport in other countries would be much more difficult to justify.
There is extensive evidence suggesting that Chinese organizations and companies have managed to hack into U.S. establishments and companies to gather commercial information and know-how. It seems likely that governmental agencies and companies in other countries have made similar attempts to hack into competing networks.
The head of the British government’s communication organization (GCHQ) recently stated publicly that his organization learn daily of new foreign cyber attacks on British interests. The British defense minister has warned that Britain must be ready for a cyber war. Helicopter gunships and unmanned drones will still be needed as will “boots on the ground,” but our armed services will have to be not just computer literate but trained in all the latest techniques involved in cyber warfare.
The threat of terrorism and the growth in crimes that have an international dimension, including sophisticated fraud and money laundering, have led the British Security Service and the police to demand that Internet service providers and telecommunications companies maintain records of the timing and place of all calls and emails, thus enabling the authorities to keep a track of suspected criminals and terrorists. Access to the contents of emails and conversations would however still require a warrant authorized by a government minister or a judge. This limited proposal has been fiercely opposed by human rights organizations and has not yet been approved by Parliament.
Papers leaked by U.S. former CIA contract worker Edward Snowden have caused a furor in Europe by alleging that U.S. intelligence agencies had “spied” on European Union offices and hacked into EU internal communications. It is not clear at what U.S. government level this activity may have been authorized, but these allegations will inevitably sour relations between the U.S. and its European allies in Europe at least for a time, and could have implications for the negotiation of the proposed wide-ranging free trade agreement between the EU and the U.S., which has been backed in principle by the U.S. president and European heads of government.
Attention in Britain has recently focused on the dangers arising from the availability of extreme pornography which, it is alleged, induces perverts to commit sexual crimes of a particularly nasty kind involving children. One horrific murder of a child in rural Wales by such a pervert was particularly shocking. Demands have been made that Internet providers should make greater efforts to screen out such material. But it may not be easy to decide where to draw the line and to stop ways of circumventing such screening.
Most people in Britain support efforts to prevent pornographic images being available on the Internet, but they deplore the sort of censorship of Internet communications practiced in China. The development of the Internet was welcomed by all who hoped for the development of truly democratic institutions in China. It was at first thought that there was no way in which effective censorship could be enforced on the Internet. But Chinese censorship has prevented Chinese citizens from accessing freely material on the Internet that the Chinese authorities consider critical of the regime.
The Internet poses a significant threat to privacy. Medical records and bank details are now increasingly stored on Internet sites. Huge amounts of data are stored on memory sticks and computer disks.
It may be argued that if we have done nothing illegal, we have no grounds to fear that our privacy may be invaded by computers, but most people are sensitive about the privacy of their family affairs and don’t want records of their failures or details about health becoming freely available.
In Britain, the Data Protection Act has been designed to ensure that our privacy is preserved, but it is far from easy to define the proper extent of what should be private and what should be in the public domain.
The Internet has been a mixed blessing, but there is no going back to the pre-Internet era. Nor would it be in our overall interests to try to limit its further development. We must now try to ensure that the principle of freedom of information is not significantly undermined either by cyber censorship or cyber attacks.
Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.