Cyber Security — Is The Internet A Sitting Duck?

Danger 2.0.
Danger 2.0.
Andrian Kreye


MUNICH — The recent attacks on the Internet would be great material for a movie. But it would be more a horror film than action flick — and it could be a low-budget production since the victims could just be you and me. No need to pay high-priced movie stars.

The screenplay would go like this: The powers of darkness introduce themselves, undetected, into playrooms, bedrooms and living rooms. That's where they take possession of all the little helpers that are making our lives easier and more amusing. They capture baby phones and cable boxes, webcams, toasters and refrigerators, recruiting them for the army of evil ghosts, which marches out in crowds of hundreds of thousands to destroy the world.

Planes falls from the sky. Power plants explode. Dams break. The world economy is collapsing. But... all hope is not lost. Enter the superheroes: An army of digital robots and weapons systems that fight back. In the end, the good guys win. The world is safe — at least for now. Because the powers of the darkness are not defeated for good. They've only pulled back in order to plan their next attack.

That's the film version. A real "denial of service attack" — a technical term used to describe what happens if the computer performance of hundreds of thousands of machines is bundled so as to overcharge the key section of a network and make it hang-up — is equally dramatic, albeit a bit more complicated to explain.

In this autumn's concrete example, the power of darkness was called Mirai. That's the Japanese word for "future." Hopefully it's not an omen, because what a mess this so-called "botnet" made in the United States, Europe and Africa. By the end of October, half of the Internet in the U.S. was down. Shortly after that, there was an attack on Liberia that forced almost the whole country offline. The next attack hit Deutsche Telekom.

It could be argued that an evening without the Internet actually benefits our social and family lives. And it's true that no planes have fallen from the sky. Still, the Mirai attack in Liberia did a lot of harm to the national economy. For the American and German users it was simply annoying.

The movie version, assuming it was successful, would certainly spawn a sequel. That's the Hollywood way. And in real life? Are there more, bigger attacks to come? Quite possibly. This past September, IT-security expert Bruce Schneier wrote an essay titled "Someone Is Learning How to Take Down the Internet." In it, Schneier interpreted a series of attacks as preparation for a massive attack that aims at, literally, taking down the whole network.

And if that really happened? Right now there's no plan B for how the world could function without the Internet. Instead the discussion focuses on "mobilizing." We're being told to arm ourselves for such digital attacks, defend ourselves at all cost, develop weapons.

Those who heed this advice will most certainly be able to fight off one attack or another. For companies and governments this is crucial — in the short run. But it doesn't change anything about the fact that the so-called Internet of things with its inter-connected domestic appliances, its clumsily cobbled together protocols and the efficiency-oriented company networks remain target elements of the digital world.

The problem is that we can't rewind digital development. But we can remember how it all started. The Internet was originally developed by the U.S. Army's DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) as a network for communication that could survive a nuclear war. And it still contains this original idea.

Strictly speaking, "the Internet" doesn't exist. It's an umbrella term for an interconnected world, in which any imaginable processing device can be interlinked, whether it's with a mainframe computer or a toaster. And so it's easy to imagine a single attack taking the whole thing down. But it doesn't necessarily have to play out like that. In the long run, the Internet will have to be regarded as the almost indestructible network of networks it was designed to be. Even if a branch point falls out, the Internet will find a loop way in order to fill the gap.

It's a common error in reasoning to see the Internet as the monolith of monoliths. And if the big digital players had their way, it would be. They'd like nothing more than to house the Internet in one big room that they alone control. But that kind of thinking is exactly what makes the Internet vulnerable to attack, what makes the danger of a digital collapse a real and horrifying possibility.

There are a couple of ways the Internet could be revisited and redesigned. The programming-collective Ushahidi in Nairobi, for example, has developed a modem for the Third World, making it possible to bypass power blackouts automatically by activating alternative network and energy sources within seconds. Scientist George Dyson, for his part, recommends renovating the old telegraph systems in order to have a sort of narrow-band Internet that could stand in as an emergency back-up system.

These approaches are as close to each other as Judo and Ultimate Fighting. Defense through evasion, on the one hand. Counterattack, on the other. The destructive potential of frontal attacks is disproportionately big on the Internet. That's why defense alone isn't enough anymore. Only if we understand the Internet's original powers of resistance we can guarantee digital safety in the long run.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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