Last month, a ransomeware attack by a bunch of Russian cyber-bandits shut down the biggest gas pipeline in the US, merely the latest in a series of high profile attacks that have interrupted the operations of businesses, hospitals, civic governments, and all sorts of private concerns. You don’t have to be a big player to attract these online hyena. Last year, my wife’s small law firm suffered an attack. They all work in the same way, by infecting the host computer system with malicious code that encrypts all the stored information, and thus deprives the owner of its use unless a fee is paid to some anonymous extortionist in Russia, or North Korea, or his parent’s basement in Manchester New Hampshire, which fee is usually demanded in a crypto-currency like Bitcoin.
This is what comes of having an interconnected global network of programmable machines designed to do nothing but execute instructions. People keep sending them instructions to screw us over. The internet is marvellous, to the point that life is now inconceivable without it blah blah blah, but it’s also a teeming hive of viruses, worms, trojans and other malware, replete with scams of every kind, delivered in every way imaginable, often by duping us into installing the malicious code ourselves via innocuous-looking links embedded in fraudulent messages purporting to originate with friends, clients, or companies we do business with, particularly financial institutions. You get right down to it, these days the world wide web is pretty much a virtual shit-hole populated by lunatics, pirates, con-artists, and Ali Baba and his Forty Fucking Thieves.
Networking. That’s what popped the lid on Pandora’s Box. We never should have let the frigging things start talking to each other. We should have stuck with mainframes and punch cards. Like it was in the Before Time, when I and the dinosaurs walked the earth.
I’m so old –
How old are you?
– I’m so old I remember when nobody had access to any sort of computer in the home or anywhere else, and if you wanted some walking around money you had to go to the bank and line up like the insignificant turd you were, clutching a hand-written slip that you’d meekly submit to a human being behind a counter called a teller, who’d then check your bank balance and tell you whether you could have what you were asking for. This was a particularly urgent task on Fridays, when you needed to make sure you had cash – actual paper money, mind you – to tide you over for the weekend. Get there after four PM, and you were shit out of luck. No pizza on Saturday for you! Remember that? Anybody? That was a lousy way to live, right? No Google, no Wikipedia, no Amazon, no streaming video, no debit cards, no ordering your KFC and pizza by keyboard. The world’s so different now! It’s better, right?
You think? Well, maybe you should think again, because cousin, it’s actually so, so much worse, in so many ways. It’s not just how vulnerable we all are nowadays to every malicious prick everywhere on the planet who has his own laptop. It’s the way that all the previously marginalized loons are mutually supported and almost infinitely empowered. The internet is the chief enabler of cults, racists, terrorists, conspiracy theorists, trolls, sexual predators, and all manner of frustrated freakjobs who, in prior years, would have suffered in silence, but now find themselves in echo chambers of others just like them, where they all form support groups, give themselves catchy names like “Incels”, and goad each other into violence and extremism. You know, time was if you were a certifiable goat-fucking pervert, you kept it on the down-low, and probably imagined yourself to be aberrant and pretty much alone in the world. Now you can form a community on line, call yourself Treasurer and Secretary of On-Line Goat Lovers Unlimited, trade snaps of your favourite sexy goats with your legion of fellow pervert goat fuckers, and start up an on-line message board. There’s seven billion people on this planet. Actuarially speaking, there just have to be at least 100,000 deviants who’re romantically inclined towards small even-toed ungulates (especially those angora ones, which you gotta admit look nice and soft). What am I saying? – there’s likely ten million. For all I know they already have a group page on Facebook. I bet you can order a live sex-goat for home delivery.
It used to be so much harder, so much more limited. Think about it: if it’s 1972, and you want to convince anybody who’ll listen that the Moon landings were faked, or the CIA shot Kennedy, what are you going to do? Run off handbills on your basement Gestetner, don a sandwich board, and hand out your manifesto to passing pedestrians at the corner of Fifth and Main? Maybe. And maybe that shit would still spread eventually, just by word of mouth. But today – today, you log on to 8Chan or Reddit or some similar virtual moonbat colony, call yourself QAnon, claim you’ve got the inside scoop on how the lizard people run the Fed, and by the end of the week you’ve got a hundred million cultists hanging on your every word, from downtown Poughkeepsie to Outer Mongolia. One post from you and a flash mob is storming the gates at Fort Knox. You don’t need any special skills, or money, or the weird charisma that attracts lost souls and impressionable outcasts, or anything at all really. In a few posts, you too can be Charlie Manson, only way bigger. Easy peasy.
And the fraud! The predation! Christ Toasties, people are still falling for the Nigerian Prince scam, let alone the ultra-sophisticated phishing attacks that dupe the credulous into handing their photos, social insurance numbers, and bank account passwords to identity thieves in Moldova. And let’s not even get into the skullduggery that goes on over sites like Tinder, and all the other filth that doesn’t bear talking about.
Now, to put the pitted cherry on top of this rancid poo parfait, the world wide web, already history’s most powerful instrument of covert surveillance and sabotage, is about to further penetrate every aspect of the daily lives of even the most regular schmoes who barely know how to text on their iPhones, making everybody a sitting duck for damned near any dirty little thing any malicious cretin can dream of doing to him. See, we’re all plugging everything we own and use into the grid, every mundane object, content to perform the electronic equivalent of dropping our pants and grabbing our ankles.
Yes, we were already plugged in, but this is different by an order of magnitude. Look: have you noticed that everything, these days, is actually a computer? Everything. Your watch, your TV, your phone, your dishwasher, and soon, probably, every other damned thing you own, right down to your socks and underwear, all have some sort of embedded microchip. Everything, therefore, has the potential to chatter back and forth in binary code over wireless networks, and even if it doesn’t now – maybe your current model toaster can’t talk to your breadbox to inquire after the supply of whole wheat – it soon will. Very soon, everything will be plugged in wirelessly to the giant electronic ecosystem. Everything. Not just your phones and your tablets and home computers. Your door bell. Your fridge. Your stove. Your security system. Your TV. Your stereo. You’re whole frigging house, from the lights to the furnace to the HVAC. Everything must be a computer, and all computers must talk to all other computers all over the world, all the time, in an enormous and growing “internet of things” that will also include everybody’s car, boat, bicycle, lawnmower, and probably your frigging toilet; meanwhile, sitting unobtrusively on some tabletop, will be something called “Alexa”, or “Google Home”, that listens to everything you say and monitors everything you do, sending the data Christ knows where, so you can sit splayed immobile on your couch and say something like “Alexa play happytime mix!”. It’s not just that we’re sending out tracking data over our smart phones and Fitbits so that anybody who pleases can plot the GPS coordinates of everywhere we go and have ever been. We’re bugging our own homes.
I don’t know how these Alexa-type things work – I won’t have one in my house, as if that’s going to save me – but maybe they purport to stop listening when you turn them off, supposing you can or ever would turn them off. I wouldn’t count on it. My bet is that no matter what, they listen, all day long, and if they’re not gathering data on how many times you break wind and bang your wife for Amazon, they’re doing it for the NSA, who must be just giddy with joy at how all this is going. I can just see them gathered around a table in some electronically secure and windowless boardroom, watching rapt as some master spook walks them through a PowerPoint titled Our Job Done For Us: How the Common Folk Are Eagerly Surveilling Themselves. If you think there isn’t a bank of Cray supercomputers somewhere in Virginia listening to every word spoken within earshot of every Alexa on Earth, give your head a shake.
I mean, shit, man, I’ve got a TV that takes voice commands, because there’s no other kind any more, and you gotta have a TV, don’t you? So I can talk to it. I don’t, but I can, and if you can talk to something, that means it listens to you. All day long. I’ve chosen to disable the feature, but only a fool would think that I’ve really given the damned thing a set of ear muffs. I bet every intelligence agency on Earth can turn it on whenever it suits them. I bet thousands upon thousands of 15 year old hackers can too. Just like they can activate the camera that sits almost invisible at the top of my Mac, or engage a key logger that came as a secret feature of that nifty screen saver I just had to download, and see everything I’m typing.
So what do we do, long as we’re at it? We connect more things to the net! Silly! Hey, if we’re going to have home surveillance cameras, hook ’em up! You don’t want to have to return home to play back the video, do you? You want to able to run last night’s recording of your living room and front frigging porch while you’re away on vacation, yes? Hell, hook up the washing machine, the fridge – you want to get emails from your Maytag and your Sub Zero, don’t you? – the lights, the thermostat, the door locks, everything! Cars too! That way they can get automatic software updates from the manufacturer, won’t that work well? Oh yes please! Can we also rig it so my Roomba can call the Help Desk in Mumbai when it gets confused after I move the furniture?
It’s all happening, and nothing, apparently, can stop it. Once we’re done, not only will Russian bandits be able to hold our power grid to ransom, al Qaeda can cause seven million simultaneous car crashes, while some punk in grade school in Lithuania or some such place can decide on a whim that it’d be fun to turn off my freezer, or tell my water heater to cut off the flow when I’m in the shower, which he’ll know, because my shower will tell him.
Oh, brave new world!
Look, long as I’m here with y’all, will you leave me alone if I make you a peace offering? How about a nice picture? Look: they’re angora! Your favourite!