Written by Matt Furlane
This past May, the ransomware virus WannaCry made headlines by infecting over 200,000 computers in over 150 countries. Although not as large as the 2008 Conficker virus that spread to 200 countries, WannaCry has garnered more attention by extorting over 120,000 dollars from its victims, and by combining the elements of encryption and a worm virus into one package, allowing it to spread rapidly around the globe.
Despite efforts to defend against these types of attacks, WannaCry has reminded us of how vulnerable we have become in the digital age. Even though technology has helped to increase communication and information, and has boosted economies all over the world, it has also created security problems that disrupt our daily lives and invade our privacy. Increasingly, I believe there is no such thing as “cyber security” for us regular people.
That baby monitor you placed in your newborn’s crib to keep him safe – it can be hacked. That phone call or text message you just sent can be “sniffed” out of the air and stolen. That great multi-mega-pixel camera on your phone can be turned on remotely to take pictures of you while you sleep, talk, or use the toilet. The microphone on your phone can be turned into a “bug” or listening device that eavesdrops on your conversations with family and loved ones. And according to reports from Wired Magazine and WikiLeaks, it’s even possible to hack your smart Samsung TV so that it’s collecting data about you. You watch the TV, and it’s watching YOU. Welcome to 1984.
In 1949, famed journalist and British novelist, George Orwell published one of the most famous dystopias about the future of civilization titled 1984, where the world is divided between three authoritarian regimes who wage perpetual war and publish endless “fake news” in order to keep their citizens ignorant. One aspect of this new world order is the ability of the government to control all aspects of people’s lives, becoming a “Big Brother.” Always present. Always watching. Always listening for “thought crime.”
In the beginning of Orwell’s story, we are introduced to the main character, Winston Smith, who lives in physical and mental misery. As he stands before his huge apartment telescreen (TV), he is not only subject to endless propaganda but actively monitored by the “Thought Police,” who serve the ruling party. The surveillance is non-stop. The state is omniscient. Like Russia under Stalin or North Korea today, the government actively seeks to control its citizens. In the 21st century, the technological power to do this is now real.
In the United States, we have some checks and balances to ensure that our government does not turn into “Peeping-Toms,” trying to look through everyone’s bedroom window, but these protections are sometimes flagrantly ignored. In 2013, former CIA and NSA employee, Edward Snowden, leaked huge amounts of data about U.S. government surveillance techniques and abilities that shocked the world. Cyber tools and programs that were initially thought to be created to prevent terrorism were actually being used to collect data on not only U.S. citizens but foreign leaders as well (like Angela Merkel and Shinzo Abe).
In several embarrassing reports published by Reuters in September of 2013, it was revealed that NSA employees used their positions to spy on friends and family members. If that wasn’t bad enough, what we now know after the 2016 U.S. election is that intelligence agencies can turn the power of the surveillance state against anyone they wish to, for whatever reason, including political opponents.
Did you support Brexit? Do you support medical marijuana? Have you ever joined a protest movement? Guess what, you’re in a U.S. government database somewhere. That phone call you had with a friend where you said “The President should die,” “That movie bombed,” “That girl is sexy” is now in a global database and can be accessed by anyone with the ability to hack or secure a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant.
In addition to all of these problems, WannaCry adds even more to our misery. Besides the abuses within the U.S. government, we also have to face the problem of rogue foreign governments or independent hacker groups (like Shadow-Brokers or Lazarus), many of whom have access to the same type of tools used by the NSA with even fewer restrictions.
But there might be hope. If you live in a democracy, ideally, your elected leaders and legal system will offer some form of protection from domestic surveillance or politically motivated attacks. According to a report in May by Reuters, the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court ruled 3–0 in favor of Wikipedia against the NSA, stating:
“A federal appeals court on Tuesday revived a Wikipedia lawsuit that challenges a U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) program of mass online surveillance, and claims that the government unconstitutionally invades people’s privacy rights.… Lawyers for the Wikipedia publisher and eight other plaintiffs, including Amnesty International USA and Human Rights Watch, with more than 1 trillion international communications annually, argued that the surveillance violated their rights to privacy, free expression, and association.”
And in Korea there are positive signs as well. According to a June article in The Korea Times titled, “New Spy Chief Abolishes Domestic Spying,” NIS chief Suh Hoon has “immediately stopped all activities of officers gathering information on government ministries, organizations, and agencies, as well as media companies.”
These changes could mark a turning point in what is becoming a dangerous battle for privacy, human rights, and democracy around the world. The question we must ask is “must we surrender our privacy to government tyrants, digital thugs and cyber perverts in order to have national security?”
I believe the time has come for a new citizens’ initiative to begin petitioning all governments, including the new Korean government under president Moon, for greater resources and action to protect regular citizens from both foreign and domestic warrant-less surveillance programs (there must be a standard for real evidence of a crime, not just fake news or fake evidence). Protecting citizens’ rights will benefit both democracy and the economy, because there is no point in voting or promoting consumer technology if it cannot be properly secured from criminals and governments alike.
Matt is an English teacher from the United States and he has a bachelor’s degree in political science and an associate’s degree in electronics engineering. He took up photography and journalism after he graduated and still relies heavily on a spell checker for words like “necessary” and “Mississippi.”