Staying one step ahead of hackers

Decades ago, when the dream of a digitally connected world emerged, it was likened to extending the human nervous system in the form of a global embrace, as author Marshall McLuhan put it. The digital humanism he spoke of in 1964 might now appear quixotic as the world confronts the cyber terrorism that held some 150 nations in a vicious grip lately.

Those who described the culprits behind the ransomware, a virus that locks up data, as “new Dick Turpins” failed to capture the enormity of the threat. The malicious acts were more than just digital highway robbery, they crippled critical infrastructure – Britain’s National Health Service, for instance, was badly hit.

One might sympathise with victims who paid the criminals to secure the digital key to recover irreplaceable files, as they were caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. But yielding simply incentivises hackers to attempt even more devastating attacks for a king’s ransom. None should surrender when defences fail, and hackers must be hunted down and treated like terrorists. Rogue nations sponsoring such activities should be dealt with firmly by the world community.

It is vital to protect global connectivity, extending to even household things, for the sake of the billions who have realised that digital dream. But the very dependency on networks threatens to turn catastrophic disruptions into the world’s worst technological nightmare. Yet there is often a collective failure to both guard against cyber incursions and to prepare for speedy recovery so essential activities are not paralysed for an unbearably long time. Those who habitually use pirated software would be more vulnerable, of course, because they lack constantly updated security patches to keep out invaders. And users who baulk at the inconvenience of sound practices, like two-step verification for access and periodic back-ups of vital data, might pay a high price when their systems are compromised. Companies which stint on paying for software upgrades or proper security infrastructure might learn the hard way the cost of being niggardly.

The logic of decoupling machines vital for operations and those offering Internet access might be clearer in the wake of the cyber attacks. Ironically, one needs to disconnect judiciously for the overall system to remain connected. In a similar contrary manner, experts need to constantly attack networks in order to defend them. Unfortunately, their tools are vulnerable to theft and these enable hackers to find alternative back doors to penetrate systems. This is a dynamic that users must appreciate as it requires them to be constantly agile too. Cyberthreats are like confined quantum particles which are always shifting and never at rest. Such is the uncertainty that the greatest enemy of netizens is complacency.


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