Editor’s Letter, December 2011: Sarah Fulford on her 21st-century nightmare

Editor’s Letter, December 2011: Sarah Fulford on her 21st-century nightmare

Lately, I have become mildly obsessed with doomsday stories about cyber attacks. Perhaps illogically, I worry about the collapse of the Internet more often than I worry about other potential 21st-century catastrophes—more than terrorist attacks or superbugs or even nuclear annihilation. I blame several new books for my growing paranoia. Last February, Kevin Poulsen, an editor at Wired, published a book called Kingpin about the cyber mafia, which, it turns out, is as organized as a multinational corporation.

Poulsen’s description of illicit online stores where you can buy stolen credit card numbers illustrated convincingly how vulnerable the system is to a new wave of entrepreneurial hackers.

Then, in September, the accomplished journalist Mark Bowden came out with a book about something even more terrifying. In Worm: The First Digital World War, Bowden chronicles the spread of Conficker, the potentially ruinous malware that has infected as many as 12 million computers worldwide. The Pentagon apparently shares his concern. This worm, which appropriates the computers it infiltrates without their owners’ permission, is powerful enough to take over networks that control banking, telephones, air traffic, power grids and global communications. Luckily, Bowden thinks Conficker’s nefarious creators aren’t interested in bringing civilization to its knees; their plan is much less ambitious. Like the cyber mafia villains in Kingpin, they’d rather just drain your bank account. But the scary idea at the centre of the book is that computer criminals, if they’re bold enough, have the power to take down the entire Internet.

Though I’ve never been a victim of identity theft, my Gmail account was hacked a few months ago. Suddenly, all my friends and family members were receiving emails from me inviting them to buy Viagra. After wrestling with my account for a few hours, attempting to change my password and put a stop to the spam, I was temporarily blocked, which left me feeling anxious, disoriented and dispossessed. How exactly would I manage without access to all the minutiae—the email addresses, the phone numbers, the three-year-old correspondence—I have stored (and have been too lazy to back up)? And that was just after being shut out for a few hours. Lord knows what would happen to us if the whole system crashed.

We are all now, deliberately or inadvertently, dependent on digital extensions of ourselves, and that fact inevitably changes how we behave. This month, Toronto Life examines the way the Internet affects some of the most intimate aspects of city living and dying. Our cover story, by Alexandra Molotkow, a 25-year-old editor at The Walrus magazine, is a vivid, confessional account of being among the first generation to grow up online. I’m only a dozen years older than Molotkow, but her relationship to chat rooms and web journals and texting is so foreign to me, we might as well be from different generations. Molotkow is clearly grateful to have grown up with the Internet, which, she claims, made her feel less lonely during her adolescent years. I envy her lack of ambivalence about living online and have resolved to stop worrying so much about global digital annihilation. In the meantime, I should probably back up my files.

—Sarah Fulford, [email protected]

(Photograph by Nigel Dickson)