Internet Security Ha Ha Ha! an Activist's Primer on the Perils of the Internet

By Hart, A. A. | Canadian Dimension, January-February 2002 | Go to article overview

Internet Security Ha Ha Ha! an Activist's Primer on the Perils of the Internet


Hart, A. A., Canadian Dimension


For today's young activists, the Internet has become one of the most useful organizing tools around. As the protests in Seattle, Quebec City and elsewhere demonstrated, the Internet has provided a medium of communication and organization on a scale hitherto undreamed-of. A wide variety of activist groups were able to coordinate massive demonstrations without depending upon the aid of the traditional leftist political organizations -- like the NDP, which finds itself playing catch-up with the youth movement. Seattle and Quebec proved that activists were no longer dependent on such structures to provide a rallying point for political dissent.

The Internet is a cheap alternative to traditional organizational structures and young activists know how to use it. They have been raised with the technology and they understand its power. It is today almost second nature for activist groups to launch websites and conduct mass e-mail campaigns. Activism has truly become a network within the Internet.

There are, however, other organizations using the Internet, to which even young activists must catch up. Activists must be aware that certain institutions can, will and do turn one of their greatest assets against them on a regular basis. Before I get into that, however, some background information on the Internet.

The Internet is the creation of the United States armed forces. In desperate need of a secure communications network that could continue to function in a "limited" nuclear war, the Pentagon recruited a group of scientists and challenged them to create a decentralized network that could automatically re-route communications to the intended recipient even if one or more major communications hubs (cities) in a direct line between sender and recipient had been reduced to a glowing crater. These computer scientists went to work and created Arpa-net. When the project was finished the scientists went on their ways to high-paying research posts at American universities. While there, they decided they wanted a quick and efficient way in which to communicate large amounts of information to colleagues, so they collectively introduced the Arpa-net technology to the universities where they worked. Soon other academics began using the technology, and then students. Thus was the Internet born.

Decades later the Internet has become monstrously huge, an ever-growing network -- one which is becoming increasingly easy to access and, at the same time, increasingly chaotic. Its dual nature is what makes the Internet both useful and dangerous. For young activists it is part of the life-blood of their movement; for governments and corporations it is a potential information-gathering bonanza. This may sound a little paranoid to the average user -- but not if you are, like me, an Information Technology Professional.

I remember quite distinctly the first course I took on the Internet -- the instructor was knowledgeable and wise in its ways. Ah, yes, I remember it well. I -- but a young Padewa Jedi -- raised my hand as he started talking about security issues, and asked quite innocently, "Should you really he that afraid of exchanging personal information on the Net?" He laughed diabolically, turned to me, wagging his finger, and said, "By the end of this course, you will be. You ... will ... be." He then launched into an explanation of how easy it would be for him intercept all our e-mail messages, find out our Internet user-ids and passwords, hack into our computers and delete our hard drives. From then on we called him Yoda, and we were afraid. By the end of the course I did learn just how easy it would be to turn to the Dark Side, were one so inclined.

To understand exactly how little effort is required to acquire personal information from another user who is on-line, one must understand how information flows over the Internet. If one understands this, then one knows what makes the Internet work. …

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