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The (Mis)Information Age – The End of the World as We Know It and What Vault7 Teaches Us

Concurrent Cyber Objects
Concurrent Cyber Objects

Call it what you want, “the age of information”, or “the cyber revolution” or “the cyber age”, what should be now obvious to most “well educated” people is that it’s end of the world as we knew it. It’s not a futuristic vision of Orwell’s 1984; the age of misinformation and outrageous conspiracy theories wrapped in non-stop consumerism is here and it’s not going away.

As you will recall from our history books, humans were “hunters and gatherers” back in “old days” and then the world moved to the “agrarian age” where humans learned to cultivate plants and animals for food instead of just scavenging the land. (As a side note, many places in the world still have human families who still live this way, scavenging anything they can from the land to survive). Our history books tell us that the agrarian age gave way to the “industrial revolution”, where humans learned how to build machines to help them work and live.

It does seem that, as far back as we can remember, humans have worshipped materialism, physical beauty, and other delights of the sensual world. Oddly enough, many of the world’s countries that claim to be “very religious” tend to worship material beauty and delight in sensual pleasures in ways that might be considered “pandemic”. However, I don’t want to digress too much, to your pleasure, I hope.

From the industrial age, our teachers tell us that the world moved to the “information age” and that humans who worked the land or the machine-builders started to find it difficult to keep up socially and economically with “information workers”. It was during this time that people who worked in information technology, especially software developers, were labeled by society as “geeks” or “nerds” or other derogatory terms. The people who could master machines using information we call “software” were told they were “fat people living on their couch as hackers” or “geeky, antisocial people”; while the people at the top of the social hierarchy (for the most part) who could not, or would not, do the “lowly task” to manipulate information to master machines became “CEOs” and “VP of Sales” or “Amazing Athletes To Be Worshipped” (AATBW).

Clandestine Botnets in Cyberpace (Actual Server Data)

And so the world was slowly divided into “the beautiful and the strong” (who also became “the rich”) who “ran the world” and “the nerds and the geeks” (who worked at the pleasure of the beautiful and the strong). The rich and the beautiful and the strong became richer and more powerful; while the poor and the less beautiful and less strong were left to find a way to survive in the “age of information”. This almost reminds me of the natural pecking order high school cliques are often divided – the “geeks” and the “jocks”.

However, as the saying goes … “on the Internet, no one knows you’re a Dog”…….

Survival in the current age of (mis) information is not as much about how big and strong you are or about how beautiful you are; it is about how well your brain can process the daily onslaught of (mis)information which is constantly impressing on your brain via countless social media networks or websites full of misinformation, untruths or downright lies. Lies have been rebranded as “alternative facts” and world leaders “tweet” misinformation as facts, demanding their perceived enemies are “investigated” only to say “Oh! We did not really mean all those things we said” after some light is shed on their crazy conspiracy theories.

But more disturbing is the fact that all of this misinformation is distracting the majority of humans on the planet. It’s difficult to engineer and improve the quality-of-life for all humanity in such a world of conspiracy theories and distracting alternative facts. Humans are more interested in reading the day-to-day deluge of never ending conspiracy theories or misinformation that supports their self-inflicted dismal worldview than going to the university, reading credible text books, and learning modern math and science. In fact, even math and science is being called into question in this dark age of misinformation.

The world has become destabilized by the deluge of misinformation, “alternative facts” and conspiracy theories that dominate our every waking hour. The human mind has not evolved to a point where the mind has the natural intelligence to distinguish between facts and “alternative facts” or “truth and lies”. Conspiracy theories domain the news cycle. Normal, hard-working, everyday human beings with families to feed and raise into this world are polluted with misinformation and they process and prioritize that information based on their world view.

This information age, or “cyber age” if you please, fact-of-life is not controllable and it’s not stoppable. No one, no government, no organization is going to “shut down” the Internet and all the misinformation and crazy conspiracy theories that dominate cyberspace. Humans are not going to stop reading social media or living a life dominated by misinformation and “alternative facts”. It’s not going to happen.

Our lives today are a byproduct of the rise of the age of information and technology in a world where humans do not have the tools to understand the cyber world that dominates their daily lives.

A Tiny Piece of Cyberspace
A Tiny Piece of Cyberspace

Take for example (just an example, recently from the Wikileaks Vault7 files), Apple Computer.

I’m a big fan of Apple and MacOS. I am the happy owner and daily user of three Mac PCs and countless iPhones over the years. The Wikileaks release of the CIA Vault7 hacks show how easy it is for just about anyone (with the skill or tools) to hack into your phones, TV, computer or other “connected” devices.

So (as an IT cybersecurity person, my professional “cybersecurity expert” civic duty after reading many Vault7 papers) I went online and tried to download some iPhone apps that would give me situational knowledge into what was going on deep into my iPhones. To my surprise, I could not even get basic network connection information. I learned that Apple had disabled access to all basic network status information for iPhones in IOS 10. This fact means that consumers cannot get basic situational knowledge of the network processes their iPhones are talking to (without jail-braking the phone, which the vast majority of consumers will not do). That’s truly remarkable in my view.

So, then I tried to scan the ports on my iPhones (using a couple of portscan tools). Apple has disabled all ports (except for one, ICMP echo reply [commonly known as ping] was not disabled) to respond to port scan queries. That’s interesting.

OK. I get it, Apple, the great company whom I like, is concerned about our security, so Apple has made the iPhone so we do NOT have any visibility into the network processes we are running on devices we own. Criminals have less visibility. Consumers have little to no visibility. I get it.

However, there is a huge downside to this.

Botnet Indexing Live Website
Botnet Indexing Live Website

When hackers or attackers use the tools, techniques and tradecraft to intrude into our devices, we have little to no tools, techniques or tradecraft to defend ourselves.

This is not just an “Apple problem” (personally, I only use Apple products). By the way, just about every “smart device” is sold without providing any tools, techniques or tradecraft for the owner of that device to have situational knowledge into what is actually going on inside our many connected devices.

This is a huge problem in this “cyber age” (or whatever “age” you choose to call it) – and by-the-way it is not a “conspiracy” it is just the byproduct of an explosion of growth in consumer electronics that are connected to the Internet. Every consumer can buy a connected device, but that same consumer is not provided any application or tool to actually “look” into the device so they can understand (“see”) the situational knowledge of what is going on within that device (which they paid for and own). This fact puts every consumer at risk.

In other words, consumers are slaves to information technology, not masters.

A looming consequence of all this is what could be called “the revenge of the nerds”, in a manner of speaking.

As I discussed in the opening of this short essay, for as long as I can remember, society has found ways to disparage IT developers and coders as “nerds” and “geeks”. For the past 30 years, in every place I have worked, and in every social situation, the non-IT “rich or beautiful or smooth talking” have found ways to treat software developers and programmers as someone socially inferior (and it’s still that way today, from what I see in real life and in the movies). One of the looming adverse consequences of this social-pecking order is that consumers, and society as a whole, are more interested in a cute or handsome footballer, or a young singer with a lovely voice, than someone who develops software to defend themselves and other families in cyberspace.

We live is a very superficial world and it is this superficial and consumeristic worship of the beautiful, the rich and the strong, and the young, that is dangerous. It is this kind of thinking that discourages people from entering into the critical fields of science and engineering.

Moreover, it’s for this reason, that in my long career in information technology, I can count on one hand (two at the most, but that is being generous) the number of “IT people” who can master the IT they claim to be experts in. For the most part, generously 99 out of 100, or perhaps even 999 out of 1,000, but more like 9,999 out of 10,000 people who call themselves “IT professions” are simply IT consumers who are skillful marketeers, well speaking sales people, or “people-person” IT mangers who are day-to-day slaves to all the information technology they come in contact with. The real “IT People” – the developers, the coders, the poor souls who were left behind working on a techie problem while the rest of the organization was out eating dinner at the company party – these are the very people that consumers need to defend them against current and future cyberattacks and cyber crime.

Unfortunately, the world is not going to change. The parties will be still for the “young and the beautiful” and the “smooth talkers” and the “rich and the famous”. The parties and the glory and the consumer worship will be for those who survive and thrive in a superficial world. However, the dominance of misinformation and other unforeseen consequences in this “cyber age” will continue to explode. In a similar, but different way as foreshadowed in the Terminator movie series and “Skynet”; the world as we know it will never be the same again (it’s true). It’s history.

Clandestine Bots in Cyberspace - Real Data
Clandestine Bots in Cyberspace – Real Data

Skynet was Hollywood fiction. But as we all know very well, truth is generally stranger than fiction.

The shadowy world of cyberspace is not going away, that is a fact. The misinformation is not going to stop, that is also a fact you can take to the bank. Democratic processes being influenced via IT and cyber-methods are not going to end. “Fake News” and “Alternative Facts” are not going to disappear. Hacking into, or taking control, of connected consumer devices is not going to stop.

I’m amazed at how little people pay attention to these core cybersecurity issues. People are constantly distracted by the 24 hour news cycle and never ending conspiracy theories which must be investigated and discussed. People are glued to “interesting information”, consuming information during most of their waking hours, from social media and messages.

In the meantime, there are storm clouds gathering.

It’s not the fictional “Skynet” which we need to worry about as much as it is ourselves and our consumer-oriented society – and our human worship of all things beautiful, sexy, rich, famous, strong and otherwise superficial. This is our human weakness – it is our downfall. We are all mostly willing, eagerly and with zeal, to walk head-on into the storm, because it means more contact with the sensual pleasures and the consumption of pleasurable goods and services that are our human brains still cling to and desire.

It’s sad, but true. I can count the number of true cybersecurity experts on one hand. However, there is no shortage of “commenters”, “likers” or “sharers” plugged into society, consuming and commenting about every conspiracy theory, anecdotal story, or personal worldview topic which they find interesting.

It’s the end of the world as we know it – and it’s not going to get any better anytime soon.