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Book Review: Exploring the dark underbelly of the World Wide Web

The goal of this book is to show how activities of states are making cyberspace a domain of conflict.
Gone are the days of the Internet when individuals were empowered. Now, governments and corporations hold the balance of power. The web is increasingly threatened by surveillance, censorship, propaganda and control and the Information Security Forum (a global, independent information security body) forecasts an even greater number of data breaches in the future. While governments are less afflicted by security breaches than the private sector, organizations and individuals are losing their way in a maze of uncertainty as they struggle with complex technology, a plethora of data and increased regulation. Cybersecurity is becoming a hot topic both on social media and in the news media.
“The goal of this book is to show how activities of states are making cyberspace a domain of conflict and therefore increasingly threatening the overall stability and security not only of the Internet but also of our very societies,” author Alexander Klimburg wrote.
We have little to no idea of what the worst case scenario of a cyber war might entail. However, a controversial inquiry into the effect of a large-scale electromagnetic pulse attack concluded that if most civilian electronics and the US power grid were “destroyed,” it could trigger a huge famine. A cyberattack designed to inflict maximum damage would not only switch off power, but also destroy parts of the power grid for prolonged periods of time, delete financial information, disrupt transportation, shut down the media and telecommunications network and also access the banking system, the air traffic control system and the rail management system. The worst possible cyber event may not be that the lights go out, but that we live in an environment that we can no longer control.
You can imagine a world where information, news, commercials and entertainment are programmed around you. You already experience this each time you use Google. The searches on Google are personalized. Google’s Gmail service scans your emails for keywords that can influence the advertisements that flash up on your screen.
To this day, civil society builds and maintains the Internet and develops computer protocols. On the other hand, the private sector plays an equally important role as it builds, owns and operates practically all of the physical aspects of the Internet.
We are now witnessing a confrontation between authoritarian regimes, who favor a state controlled model, and liberal democracies led by the United States, who are in favor of a free Internet. One of the biggest battles is how to keep personal information safe on the Internet.
Few people know the role played by the InfoSec community, known as “the community” in the book, a group of dedicated, brilliant computer technicians who attempt to keep the Internet safe. Fortuitously, a member of InfoSec community uncovered a fatal flaw in a fundamental protocol of the Internet — he discovered that he could impersonate any website in the world. In a remarkable example of altruism, he exposed this flaw to 16 experts and was thanked with a simple accolade. Thanks to such nonprofit organizations, not affiliated to any government, the Internet is a safer place. “Some of these informal groups of cyber defenders are highly-paid consultants working for free, sometimes university researches or experts in IT security companies, but also individuals in many of the world’s largest corporations whose efforts to safeguard their companies are critical, but remain unknown to their own boards,” writes Klimburg.
What is Internet governance?
The term “Internet governance” refers to the management of the world’s Internet resources that effectively power cyberspace. It encompasses cyberspace security, on one hand, and international cybersecurity on the other. There is an urgent need to address the possibility of state conflicts through cyberspace and avoid escalation and the inability to manage a crisis. Presently, two countries are leading the way. Russia and China are continuously on the offensive, they have taken the initiative and are creating political momentum.
Information warfare is a controversial topic that Western countries have largely chosen to ignore. However, Russia’s return to propaganda war has prompted Western governments to reopen discussions and the leaks on US intelligence released by Edward Snowden have had far-reaching implications on US cybersecurity.
“The threat of the information warfare narrative, with the overtones of ‘information is a weapon,’ is one of the most dangerous challenges facing democratic society as a whole for it threatens to make everything, including free speech and basic human rights, the battleground… At worst, it would mean not simply a loss of national prestige or a shattering of alliances, but even a fundamental weakening of democracy itself,” writes Klimburg.
Although Russia, China and the US dominate the international cyber landscape, since 2016, more than 30 countries are openly pursuing defensive as well as offensive capabilities in cyberspace. The US, Russia and Israel have some of the best “battlefield cyber” capabilities. However, Iran has followed an aggressive capabilities agenda “and has become one of the most worrying cyber actors in the eyes of many national governments, sometimes even ranked on threat assessments third after Russia and China,” writes Klimburg.
North Korea is another country that has superseded its basic technical abilities and launched damaging attacks. In 2009, North Korea disrupted the White House and the Pentagon’s public websites. Turkey has repeatedly blocked Twitter, Facebook and You Tube and India’s highest court has rejected some contentious legislation aimed at controlling social media activity while Brazil has produced a document that protects civil rights online. All this shows the importance the Internet has taken on the political stage.
Klimburg concludes on a positive note concerning the rise of clickbait-style, often unverified and untrue stories that spread like wildfire on the Internet, saying: “The ability of the civil society and news media in democratic societies everywhere to respond to the so-called ‘fake news phenomenon’ leaves me very hopeful that the technical vulnerability in the wider information ecosystem can be patched.”