The coming internet age of liberation and treachery

Google chairman Eric Schmidt believes criminals and terrorists will exploit the internet, but more connectivity will help billions

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 February, 2013, 4:20am

We face a future in which cyberterrorists are targeted by government drone strikes, online identities are taken hostage and held for ransom, and parents explain online privacy to their kids long before the subject of sex.

That, at least, is Google chairman Eric Schmidt's vision of the future, one in which the distinction between the physical and virtual will become blurred.

"For citizens, coming online comes to mean living with multiple identities; your online identity becomes your real identity," he said. "The absence of a delete button on the internet will be a big challenge. Not just what you say and write, but also the websites you visit, and do or say or share online. For anyone in the public eye, they will have to account for their past."

Schmidt returned from his trip to North Korea last month where he witnessed a population living in an "utter information blackout" - but that change was certain to come, as well as for the 5 billion people worldwide not yet connected to the internet, for whom connectivity would bring enormous benefits and transform their lives.

"North Korea reminds me how far we have come," Schmidt said before an audience at Cambridge University in the first of a series of speeches outlining his view of the technological future: "That disconnectedness used to be closer to the norm than where we are now."

He said that he thought change would come "slowly and incrementally" to North Korea as the use of mobile phones spread, and with it information. Google has already updated its maps of the country since Schmidt's visit using "citizen mappers" inputting information to its Mapmaker software.

With 2 billion people already online, he said he could see many benefits to the rise of connectivity - but that it would also be exploited by sinister forces as our online identities became a bigger element of our real-world identities.

"We could see virtual kidnappings - ransoming your ID for real money," Schmidt said. "Rather than keeping captives in the jungle, groups like Farc [in Colombia] may prefer a virtual hostage. That's how important our online ID is."

Schmidt's forecast is an extension of some existing trends. Some hackers have already used "ransomware" which takes over a user's computer and encrypts its hard drive, locking them out - unless they make a payment to the hackers. And others have had their private lives revealed online after having their email accounts hacked.

Schmidt said the problems could go further as other technologies become cheaper: "Terrorists and criminals could use drones to carry IEDs [improved explosive devices] - that could result in conflict between civil and military drones," he suggested.

"Or it could happen over the US-Mexico border" - on one side of which drug cartels hold more sway than the police or citizens in a number of areas. "Maybe we'll even see the world's first drone strike against cyberterrorists. That's how evil part of this [growth in technology] could be.

"But the future will be much more disruptive to terrorists than everyone else. I can't see them operating out of caves in Tora Bora" as al-Qaeda did after the US invasion of Afghanistan.

Terrorists' need to communicate online will lead to problems in hiding, Schmidt said: "If they connect them, they leave some sort of digital footprint. And that makes them detectable."

He cited the case of one target who had said on a phone call that he was going to a family wedding, naming the place - and been caught as a result. Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad reportedly raised suspicions because it didn't have any internet connection.

The importance of online identities would also mean that parents would have to educate children much earlier about the importance of making choices over what digital footprints they created than about sex.

"I'm absolutely convinced that parents will have to have the 'online privacy' talk with their children before 'the sex talk'," he said. "It might be when they're eight years old, you'll be saying 'don't put that online! It'll come back to bite you!' and then have to explain why.

And parents would have to consider the implications even of the name they chose for a child. "If you give your child a unique name, that name will have a high ranking in search results [because it's unusual]. Or you can give them a non-unique name with a low ranking. What kind of parent are you in each case?"

He suggested that "our online identity will become such a powerful element. Laws to protect anonymity - we may even see rise in black market where we can buy pre-made or real identities, with all their shopping and background all completely 'real' - verifiable online, that is. That's the effect of there being no delete button [on the internet] - people will find fake IDs attractive."

Drug smugglers trying to evade police and political activists looking to hide from repressive regimes would find fake identities useful.

"You'll be able to buy an identity with fake friends and a history of purchases," he said. "I'm not encouraging this - some are saying it's going to happen."

But, he added, that "whatever happens with digital identity, I know that Europe will be the leader in managing its regulation. Other countries may be clueless."

He even suggested that repressive regimes might seek to carry out "online ethnic cleansing"- "where people from a certain group the government doesn't like have their online payments slowed or even stopped, where their tweets are deleted, they can't connect."

However, he held out hopes that the rise of connectivity, especially through mobile phones with data services, would reduce corruption and undermine repressive regimes.