Internet Security's Growing Pains

Recent widespread security breaches at a number of large companies and organizations have raised serious questions about internet security and the safety of users' privacy. While security issues are generally dismissed to the back-channels of the internet and the IT-security world, these highly public fiascos have finally brought hacking to the public’s attention. If these breaches are left unaddressed as the internet continues to grow, fear of future security issues will throw a big wrench in our day-to-day internet use.

Hackers attacked multiple security systems, including defense contractors Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, the U.S. Senate, Fox.com, Citibank, Sony, and (as of last night) the CIA. As a result, an untold number of personal accounts, classified national documents, and highly sensitive government data have been leaked.

The response to these breaches has been varied. Many organizations, including Sony and Citibank, did not notify customers of the breach until weeks later. For many in the defense contracting world, the hack has thrown the industry into a panic as they scramble to fill gaps in their digital defenses. The U.S. government, seeing these breaches as a growing threat from international ne’er-do-wells, declared it will consider computer sabotage or cyber attacks acts of war. A military official was quoted in the Wall Street Journal bluntly stating that “if you shut down our power grid, maybe we will put a missile down one of your smokestacks.”

As the internet grows, spreading information to the four corners of the world, the number of individuals abusing this evolving medium also grows.

Many entrust a great deal (read: far too much) to the internet, assuming safety in numbers and putting their faiths into large internet institutions. If a company is doing millions in business over the internet, they must have a solid grasp on their digital security, right?

The reality is that many companies and individuals rushed headlong into the internet to lay claim to a new territory, intending to reinforce foundations later. Now, as groups of anonymous hackers have cracked open our “securest” institutions, they are realizing their mistake. What happens in response to this spate of security breaches will dictate the future of the internet as we know it.

Failing to respond publicly and effectively to these issues will hurt public trust in the safety of digital information. As a result, internet commerce will suffer as individuals hesitate to toss around credit card information and other financial details.

The other extreme, an overly heavy-handed response, will cause just as many problems. Mandating over-the-top security measures and screening will increase transaction costs for users and digital entrepreneurs which will undoubtedly stifle innovation and halt growth.

The security breaches of the last few months serve as a stark reminder that the internet still has some growing pains to experience. In reality, our digital relationships function on a basic understanding of trust. Sure, some companies guarantee security contractually, but many do not.

Internet security requires a balance of patching holes without draconian safety screenings. For the next generation of internet companies, investment in modernized and well-maintained security is a necessity. Moving forward, companies must be forthcoming and honest about security issues, especially when personal information is at stake.

The internet is the medium of the future. Without trusted security, the internet's seemingly limitless potentially will be curtailed in a way that benefits no one. The time to address fundamentals like security is long overdue and how companies respond to this string of attacks will set the tone for future generations of internet users and entrepreneurs. 

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Mark Kogan

Mark is a lawyer and Mic contributor living in Washington, D.C.

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