The cyber war that is raging in your pocket

Walid Jawad
Walid Jawad
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It was 1986 when I first connected to the Net. The modem was an old-fashioned phone handset placed on a cradle that spoke in AOL “handshake” tones.

The long distance call from Dhahran’s KFUPM to Harvard University’s node was transformative, placing me in the middle of a sci-fi novel. I found myself reading a physics research paper unaware of the potential to which that connection was providing.

The next interaction was from Riyadh in the first half of the 1990s over an XT 286 computer. By that time, you could reach other Intranets if you had the necessary information.

Fast forward to Washington DC, 1997, when AOL made the internet accessible in “high” speeds at 56Kbps. “You got mail” was addictive, and the World Wide Web (WWW), those three letters that opened our eyes to a limitless new world.

How did the hopeful advent of the Internet turned from a revolution that overcame human physical limitations of space to the latest frontier of war; cyberwar?

Cyber-armies are becoming part of the composition of any war ready armies. Unlike other units at the ready for when war breaks, cyber-armies conduct warfare around the clock every day

Walid Jawad

The lure

A quest for knowledge was the initial driver; informative and enlightening — instant communication eclipsing the carrier pigeon, horses, postal service, telegram, and fax; instant, easy and cheap.

Our innate voyeuristic tendencies made it addictive. In its infancy, the Internet offered a very wide margin for anonymity. It allowed a person to be whomever they want to be hiding behind a faceless username.

Forums and chat rooms popped up creating a safe space for people to engage in dialogue without censorship. The Internet became a haven for many. It offered a parallel existence with undefined rules and disputed norms. It was a guilty pleasure. Alas, Internet yesteryears are to be remembered nostalgically.

Although we can still operate in some corners of the internet with a cloak of anonymity, it is the exception. Today, our new “www” ID is our Facebook account. Those who had an alter ego carry their real photo are compelled to either recreate their Facebook in their real-life image or adopt that fictitious persona in the real world with great limitations.

Soon enough Facebook algorithms will catch up to users and force their real-life identities onto the platform if it has not already. It’s already the case that governments and businesses troll Facebook to glean insights into people’s “real” lives.

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Spy agencies do it and so do hiring company prior to making their job offer. Before we know it, we won’t need physical passports or driver’s licenses, or credit cards to move around. In fact, the last number of purchases I have made were through my app Wallet by waving my smartphone to the point of sale at the register.

My car’s insurance card is already in the insurance company’s app on my device. And Google knows where I’ve been and can guess where I’m going as soon as I type the first letter of my destination on Maps. I believe my cell phone knows more about me than my wife - heck, I think it even knows me more than I consciously do.

It would be one thing if personal information is contained within the device, but it’s a different issue when my data is marked for attack by unauthorized government spokes and organized hackers.

Governments, businesses, and activists and hackers make it their business to break the defenses we put up to gain access to my information and yours. Our devices are pawns in the greater game of cyberwars although we own them, hackers use them to their advantage.

New cyber-warriors

Espionage, sabotage, propaganda, and economic disruption are all part of the cyberwars battlefield; they are different objectives serving varying needs. Academics are still working on the dichotomy of this cyberwar while the battleground itself and the warring parties are shifting and evolving.

Nevertheless, the overarching understanding seems to that there are two types of actors: Hacktivists and government. Most of us heard of the activist group “Anonymous” while the US government has created its latest US Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM).

Cyber-Armies are becoming part of the composition of any war ready armies. Unlike other units at the ready for when war breaks, cyber-armies conduct warfare around the clock every day. The battlefield is littered with state-sponsored attacks and counterattacks against governments and non-state actors.

Operational aspects of cyberwars make a distinction between two types of targets; one, government controlled and business digital systems, and two, the physical infrastructure controlled by digital systems.

The military is one such physical aspect that would be targeted, power grid and water supplies are other infrastructures. These big systems are matters of national security forcing governments to take proactive steps to guard against them. But are governments taking proactive measures to safeguard against organized attacks targeting the individual?

When we examine cyberspace on the level of individual users, we quickly find that the lack of proactive protection is turning each of us into part-time tech-warriors defending against constant assaults.

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Each must be guarded in anticipation of threats lurking behind unknown links and downloads. All the while, a new bread of cyber warriors are in the making trying to find new and innovative ways to bypass our defenses. They have more than one option to steal our information, either by hacking into our own devices or by hacking into the systems that hold our accounts.

I don’t know about you, but lately, I’ve been receiving an increased number of notices from banks and other businesses informing me that I could be one of the millions of accounts that were compromised. There is no foolproof way to guard against hackers or spy agencies.

The latest Russian digital war against the US targeting voters during the 2016 elections is a daily evolving news item here in the US. We need to be clear; this is only a specific attack that is garnering media attention. Cyber-attacks are happening all the time against all sorts of systems - that is the reality of the cyber existence we live in.

It will be revealing to read the full report provided to the US Senate Intelligence Committee due to be published later this week. The leaked report is claimed to focus on the US 2016 elections, but it goes beyond Russia and the elections to include the role of social media organizations in the Arab world and elsewhere.

Personal information

Each user must be responsible for his/her online security. The problem is most of us don’t know what we need to do to safeguard against the constant barrage of attacks. And when we learn and implement new defenses, attackers find new ways to overcome our efforts.

Cyberwarfare is global, but much of the attacks are personal. Each of us is a soldier or a victim, or a victimized soldier in this war and it starts with your online presence. We mistake companies that provide us services like Facebook, Google, Twitter, Instagram, etc for service providers.

Yes, they do provide a service, but that’s not how they make their billions. Their business model is to provide our attention and information to their clients; we are the product.

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Facebook, Google, and Twitter along with other social media platforms can be trusted as long as their bottom line is dependent on satisfying the users, us. We as users have very limited options to coordinate a response to punish these platforms and compel them to do what is right by us; i.e. to keep our information private as they promise. Our human nature is yet to evolve from the survival of the species in nature to one that has options to prevent being violated in the world of zeros and ones.

The trick is to get these platforms to be proactive in their defense of our information and not merely react to attacks after the damage is done. We know that criminals are always one step ahead of law enforcement, but this is not true on the Internet.

These billion dollar companies can dedicate the resources needed to ensure our protections. This is only one step toward creating a safer environment on the Internet, the rest is incumbent on the individual user to be discriminate in our daily online adventures. And no, there is no African prince who wants to give you millions of dollars. If it’s too good to be true, then it probably isn’t.
Walid Jawad is a former Senior Policy Analyst at U.S. Department of State and a former Washington, DC correspondent. He covered American politics for a number of TV outlets since 1997. Walid holds an undergraduate degree (B.A) in Decision Science and Management Information Systems and a Masters in Conflict Analysis and Resolution. You can follow him @walidaj.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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