Magazine article The Spectator

Hugo Rifkind: Are We All Potential Cyberterrorists Now?

Magazine article The Spectator

Hugo Rifkind: Are We All Potential Cyberterrorists Now?

Article excerpt

Hollywood got there first, of course. Back in 1983, before most of us even learned -- then forgot again -- what a modem was, Matthew Broderick starred in the seminal and brilliant WarGames . He played a computer hacker; a teenager who goes hunting for games on the global computer network that isn't quite called the internet, yet. Unwittingly, he instead hacks into Norad, the North American Aerospace Defense Command and, via a convoluted series of events we need not go into here, very nearly sparks World War Three.

Various angry generals assume, first of all, that he is the Russians. Then they assume he must at least be working for the Russians. But he isn't. He's just some kid who isn't even Ferris Bueller yet. At his fingertips, nonetheless, is the expertise to blow up the world. I thought of him this week, when a boy of 15 was arrested in County Antrim on suspicion of hacking into the broadband provider which sponsors The X Factor .

It might not have been him. He was freed on bail the next day. The point, though, is that it could have been. No, the hacking of TalkTalk was not quite World War Three, although Lord knows you could have been forgiven for thinking it was, given the fuss made on Radio 4's Today programme. Was somebody senior a customer, perhaps? Either way, the initial suspicion was that it could have been cyberterrorists of some sort; perhaps Islamists. Somebody ominous. And maybe it was. Or maybe it wasn't. Maybe it was nobody much at all.

Western security services are on a cyber-PR push right now. Possibly it's the groundwork for Britain's pending Investigatory Powers Bill, which seems to be popping up at the same time as America's Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act. Always, the stated targets are big and scary. Having finally wearied of TalkTalk, the BBC had Richard Ledgett, the deputy director of America's National Security Agency, who spoke in a gravelly voice about the threat of cyber-attacks by hostile nation-states. As our own bill draws closer, expect to hear others warning of cyberterrorism, organised crime, paedophile rings.

These are all things worth worrying about, more so now than ever. One quiet upshot of the defection of the former CIA analyst Edward Snowden in 2013 (you remember; there was nothing else in the Guardian for months) was that many US-based internet companies -- Facebook, Gmail, etc. -- switched on encryption by default. As a result, at least so far as we know, western security services suddenly found it much harder to monitor email traffic, to whatever extent they were already legally allowed to do so. …

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