If you think the Internet can go on being just like it is, here's some bad news.
by Sean Gallagher - Feb 24, 2015 6:30pm EST
In the New York City of the late 1970s, things looked bad. The city government was bankrupt, urban blight was rampant, and crime was high. But people still went to the city every day because that was where everything was happening. And despite the foreboding feelings hanging over New York at the time, the vast majority of those people had at most minor brushes with crime.
Today, we all dabble in some place that looks a lot like 1970s New York City—the Internet. (For those needing a more recent simile, think the Baltimore of The Wire). Low-level crime remains rampant, while increasingly sophisticated crime syndicates go after big scores. There is a cacophony of hateful speech, vice of every kind (see Rule 34), and policemen of various sorts trying to keep a lid on all of it—or at least, trying to keep the chaos away from most law-abiding citizens. But people still use the Internet every day, though the ones who consider themselves "street smart" do so with varying levels of defenses installed. Things sort of work.
Just like 1970s New York, however, there's a pervasive feeling that everything could go completely to hell with the slightest push—into a place to be escaped from with the aid of a digital Snake Plissken. In other words, the Internet might soon look less like 1970s New York and more like 1990s Mogadishu: warring factions destroying the most fundamental of services, "security zones" reducing or eliminating free movement, and security costs making it prohibitive for anyone but the most well-funded operations to do business without becoming a "soft target" for political or economic gain.
That day is not yet nigh, but logic suggests the status quo can't continue forever. The recent rash of major breaches of corporate networks, including the theft of personal information from the health insurer Anthem and the theft of as much as a billion dollars from over 100 banks are symptoms of a much larger trend of cybercrime and espionage. And while the issue has been once again raised to national importance by the White House, it could be argued that governments have done more to exacerbate the problem than address it. Fears of digital warfare and crime are shifting budget priorities, funding the rapid expansion of the security industry and being used as a reason for proposals for new laws and policy that could reshape the Internet.
“If we think our kids and grandkids are going to have as awesome and free an Internet as the one we have, we really have to look at why we think that," Jason Healey, director of the Cyber Statecraft Initiative at the Atlantic Council of the United States, told Ars.
The alternative futures for the Internet are not pretty. In presentations at multiple security conferences, Healey has suggested that the Internet could “start to look like Somalia”—a failed state where security is impossible, going about daily life is hazardous, and armed camps openly wage war over the network.
Healey's analysis has been reinforced by events over the past two years: record data breaches, zero-day vulnerabilities released that affected a preponderance of Internet services, and visibility into the vast state surveillance of the Internet. The Internet has been “weaponized,” not just by the NSA and its foreign counterparts but by other states and Internet crime organizations. A thriving market for vulnerabilities attracts the bright and ambitious to work on discovering "zero days" for profit.
While a total breakdown of the Internet is unlikely, Healey and others believe that it's nearly as unlikely that today's status quo can be sustained. Other possible scenarios wouldn't bring networked life to its knees, but they all would make the Internet a very different "place" than it is today.
Five years ago, Healey was on a team advising the Department of Defense about the structure of its future IT workforce. To do that, the team needed to understand what the networked world would look like in the next decade. Healey was researching the issue, and he started to look at scenarios where “maybe the future is going to look very different from the past,” he said. “Attackers have had an advantage for 35 years—what if that relationship is going to shift?”
The potential answers Healey found were presented in a 2010 paper. He further refined them in a 2011 article in the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs called “The Five Futures of Cyber Conflict and Cooperation.” The most optimistic and least likely of Healey’s scenarios was a “cyber paradise," he told Ars. "Defense is way better than offense—you’d have to be really amazing, like the NSA or KGB, to get anything done as an attacker.” But as he looked at trends, he realized that maybe the classic relationship above wouldn't be shifting. “It’s way more likely that it’s going to go in the other direction—that offense is going to have a significantly larger advantage than it does now.”