A fierce war is in progress, and many Americans don’t know much about it.
That’s because instead of automatic weapons fire or roadside bombs, the sounds from this war are barely audible clicks and the whirring of hard drives.
We say many Americans are unaware of the cyberwar, but many are, especially the ones at the end of last week whose usual internet haunts couldn’t be accessed or otherwise behaved badly.
Folks following the presidential race know a foreign government, most likely Russia, seems to be trying to influence the U.S. presidential campaign outcome, using hackers to disrupt and steal one party’s internal campaign memos.
Most Americans generally know about hackers and what they can do, but if you really want to take a scary Halloween-ish journey into the future, just type the word “hacker” onto your browser’s search line — and tighten your seat belt.
Everything you might ever want to know about cyber warfare is there on the web, and it is frightening.
Loosely defined, a hacker is someone with advanced computer/network skills who is generally capable of breaking into a variety of networks, even some that fancy themselves “totally secure.” The hacker concept took form in the 1960s and involved computer scientists associated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The earliest groups organized themselves into clubs, and the work they did could mostly be classified as pranks. But as computer technology exploded in subsequent years, other, shadier uses of hacking became abundantly clear.
These days, the hacker community is subdivided into three basic groups — the “black hats” focusing on using the internet to break into communications networks; “white hats” whose primary aim is to stop the black hats by destroying with viruses, and plugging leaks in security systems; and “gray hats,” those who are morally and ideologically ambiguous.
The cyber wars have been in progress for years. The murderous Islamic State has capitalized on the internet to attract and recruit disaffected young people, using black-hat tactics. The white hats — and some grays — eventually stepped in to disrupt ISIS’ internet activities, and its hacking is generally considered to be more effective than the boots-on-the-ground approach.
Last week, when it was fairly certain that Russia was behind the hacking attempts on the presidential campaign, a gray hat known as “The Jester” stepped into the breach, warning Russian hackers to back off, and made his point by making a mess of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ website. Sort of a shot-across-the-bow approach to international relations.
The implications of such electronic incursions cannot be overstated. It’s almost a “Wizard of Oz” scenario, in which a single person behind a curtain can manipulate on a truly grand scale.
Also last week, in what authorities now believe was an act of simple vandalism, popular websites were disabled by hackers using cyber robots to steal data from smart-home and cable TV devices. The damage was temporary, and the sites were back up quickly, but the message is crystal clear — we can take you down at our leisure, using your own devices as doorways.
Sort of makes that free wi-fi connection at the corner coffee shop seem a little sketchy, doesn’t it.
Experts advise laying on all the cyber security you can handle. Change your passwords and avoid simplistic naming conventions. When in those public wi-fi hot spots, don’t even think about balancing your checkbook online.
Unfortunately, you don’t have to be in a branch of the military services to find yourself in the midst of this war.