“Now, my friends, the internet is the most transformative piece of infrastructure ever created. It has changed the world, it has changed history, it has changed us,” said Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull when he launched Australia’s Cyber Security Strategy in April.
Turnbull is right, at least about that thing.
The internet is now decades old. We’ve had commercial internet service providers in Australia for more than 20 years. Many young adults have never known a time without the internet. It’s part of the fabric of our society. Yet most Australians are completely ignorant of the potential dangers of this new world.
Monday night’s Four Corners episode “Cyber War” attempted to bring us up to speed. For mine, though, it highlighted two massive gaps in our understanding. Gaps that, as a society, we need to fix.
The program wasn’t so much about cyber war literally as metaphorically. A high-level zoom through all the cybers. Cyber crime. Cyber espionage. Cyber sabotage. And, yes, some actual cyber war.
In a 45-minute program, that meant only a brief, simplified introduction to each topic. That didn’t please some of the hackers, systems administrators and information security (infosec) community watching.
The most common reaction from the tech-savvy was that there’s nothing new here. True enough. We’ve been talking about bad guys hacking our bank accounts through our smartphones, hacking our household appliances, or even causing a wartime digital apocalypse since at least 2011.
In that same year, the attorneys-general of the US, UK, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand agreed on a global cybercrime action plan. The head of the then-Australian Crime Commission warned Australians to harden up.
Yet the average punter’s reaction to Four Corners was much like a tweet from psychology student Katrina Austin: “Wow the internet is a whole crazy other world!”
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Here’s that first gap in understanding. After more than two decades of internet-connected computers, the IT industry has failed to educate its customers in the safe use and maintenance of their products. Or rather, in the pursuit of fast growth and massive profits, they’ve failed to make their products safe to begin with.
[Cybersecurity? The biggest online criminals are … us]
Businesses have also failed to heed what warnings have been given. They’re still making basic mistakes — a concern, given that criminals are now attacking softer targets like payroll and superannuation systems.
We’re not learning from our mistakes either. The auto industry, for example, has already sold millions of smart cars that can be hacked.
The second gap of understanding is in how the mainstream media reports these cybersecurity issues, and internet issues in general.
To put it bluntly, journalists have failed to accompany and inform the public on their journey through one of the greatest transformations in human history.
The last time Four Corners covered cybersecurity was in 2013, with an episode entitled “Hacked“. Before that, in 2009 with “Fear in the Fast Lane“. No wonder that in 2016 they have to explain it all from the beginning again.
This isn’t to pick on Four Corners, of course.
Last year, criminals impersonated a senior executive of a Western Australian company and persuaded staff to transfer $700,000 to their bank account. If that had been a bank heist, it would’ve been news for days.
Many media outlets only started paying attention to the mandatory retention of telecommunications data — the so-called metadata debate — when their journalists realised the law affected their work. Their attention came too late.
Four Corners could have easily done a full episode each on cyber crime, espionage, sabotage, and war, and still have only scratched the surface.
So should you watch this episode? Sure, why not. Its only real problem was trying to do too much. If nothing else, it’ll show you a handful of new things to worry about. If you’re already familiar with this stuff, it’s an example of how the issues are presented to the general public.
It’s a good start. But with the internet now part of the fabric of our society, Four Corners — and every other news and current affairs program — should be giving internet issues the same prominence and depth of coverage as roads and railways, law and order, housing, electricity, health, and education.