Arlington, VA–After arriving at her office in the Pentagon, security chief Janis Smith logs on to her computer. Instead of asking for her password and security code, her computer hesitates. A series of strange, rapidly moving codes appears. Janis senses something is terribly wrong. The security firewalls are down. Detailed maps of strategic military facilities and other top-secret information flash across the screen. A mysterious message forms on her monitor: “United States-your secrets are ours.” The nation’s security has been broken. Janis alerts the president immediately. A bold attempt to infiltrate the Defense Department’s top-secret internal computer system has succeeded! The entire country is at risk.
The inner defense of the United States hasn’t really been broken –yet. But computer experts warn that the Internet is growing at such a rapid pace that just about anyone may soon be able to access information–even top-secret information. Security for the government, businesses, organizations, and private citizens is now a major concern.
The Internet began in 1960 as part of a government experiment. Four Defense Department computers were linked together so that they could share information.
Today, the Internet has grown into a high-speed computer network system that allows millions of computer users around the world to communicate with one another. A recent study reports that more than 24 million Americans are currently using the Internet. Studies show that the number of people using the Internet doubles every 53 days. Two million of those users are under the age of 18, and it is predicted that, by the year 2000, the number will increase to 15 million.
Many say the Net is one of the most important and far-reaching technological inventions to date. The Internet provides limitless opportunities in communication and education. E-mail messages can be zipped across the street or around the world. The Internet enables groups of like minded people all over the world to freely organize and share ideas and information. The educational applications of the Net are limitless, providing students endless amounts of information at their fingertips.
However, many people question whether the potential dangers of the Internet outweigh the net’s educational advantages. Some say this new technology is growing so fast that new problems arise before old ones can be solved. Experts say that issues of overuse and addiction, technical overload, and an increase in computer crime are just some of the many problems the growing number of computer users will have to face in the years ahead.
Some scientists refer to the Internet as the “techno-drug of the nineties.” Many worry that over-reliance on the net threatens to depersonalize people’s lives, encouraging them to withdraw from outside world.
“It’s easy to get addicted,” says Zachery Kessin, an Internet service provider, “especially if you have this type of personality that gets easily distracted. It’s hard to know when to stop.” High-school student Todd Kane admits to spending more than 90 minutes a day on the Net, as do many of his friends.
According to University of California computer science professor Tom Keenen, “Addiction to the Internet is real and can cause serious isolation, especially among teens.”
A study at New York’s Alfred University cites the Internet as a reason for an increase in the number of failures and dropouts at the school. A study showed that almost half of students who failed at the college used the Internet when they should have been studying. Many of the students reported long hours logged on and too many late-night sessions in chat rooms. “The computer rooms have resulted in more students being failed than membership in fraternity and sorority houses,” says school official Richard Oft.
Many in the computer industry wonder if the increase in new users and the increase in the amount of time spent logged on will overload the Internet Despite faster modems and telecommunications, using the internet is becoming slower rather than faster. Owners of popular Web sites are noticing that it already takes longer for users to receive information from Web sites than it did even a few months ago.
More and more businesses are relying on the internet for E-mail communication and research. When America Online (AOL), the nation’s largest computer network service, went off-line unexpectedly last August, more than 6.2 million users were left floating in cyberspace for more than 19 hours. Program bugs and human error were to blame for AOL’s temporary shutdown. Although it isn’t likely that the entire Internet will ever totally crash, the Internet is prone to bugs and glitches. Experts note that eventually the Internet will be able to accommodate the increase in use. But, for now, “There’s no relief in sight,” says Milo Medlin, Internet expert. “As fast as we add more capacity, there are new problems.”
Another growing concern among Internet users is the possible invasion of privacy. While the high speed of sending information is part of the Net’s appeal, it is also one of its dangers. Personal, confidential, or high-security documents can rapidly be made public. Once a user hits the send button, a message can end up anywhere, bounced from site to site in minutes. Anything posted on the net is highly public. Some groups, such as Usenet, even document and archive information posted in chat rooms.
Most Web sites keep track of their visitors, making anonymity on the Net difficult. Visitors leave behind “digital footprints,” which can reveal information about the computer user.
An increase in computer viruses also poses a challenge to the Internet. A virus is a hidden program in a computer that can destroy data and software. Because of the increase in Internet users, computer viruses are more common than ever before. Viruses are deliberate attempts by hackers to infect a computer’s system. Before the Net, they were spread by passing disks from computer to computer. “On the Internet, viruses are spreading ten times faster than they ever have before,” says Peter Tippett, a professional “virus hunter” who works to prevent and destroy viruses. Spreading much as does a human virus, a computer virus can infect any computer that comes into contact with it. While many viruses cause little permanent damage, others can erase information or shut down computers.
Other cybercrimes are also more widespread. The Internet provides a whole new vehicle for “hackers,” vandals, thieves, and even terrorists. Since the Internet is relatively new, computer scientists and legislators are working on security measures and possible ways of detering crime in cyberspace.
In early August, a computer hacker broke into the homepage of the United States Justice Department. Replacing the page’s information with photos of Adolf Hitler and writing antigovernment slurs, the hacker renamed the site “The Department of Injustice.” In this case, however, no real damage was done, and all the government’s private information remained intact, protected by complicated security systems.
The Internet is still in its infancy. The Internet of today is just the beginning of what people are calling the “information highway.” Even computer scientists are unable to forecast where the Internet and computer science will lead society.
With any new technology, there is an inevitable downside. Technology in modern life is almost a force of nature that can’t be stopped. With many new technologies there are complications, fears, and uncertainties. But, more importartly, there are improvements, adaptations, and opportunities.
Netting a Victory
“Cybernauts” around the country are celebrating a Philadelphia federal Court’s overturning of the Communications Decency Act (CDA). Congress had passed the CDA in order to protect children and young adults from offensive or dangerous material on the Internet, making it a crime to display “indecent” material on-line. The court system said the act was too vague and unconstitutional. The Philadelphia judges described the net as “a never-ending worldwide conversation” that should be protected under the Constitution’s first Amendment, which guarantees Americans free speech. The judges ruled that it is a parent’s duty, not the government’s’ to restrict what a child sees on the Net. Now, issues concerning the internet are on their way to the United States Supreme Court.