It wasn’t so long ago that a person dissatisfied with their lot on the East Coast could pack up and start fresh in the West. As settlers first began migrating to America’s western regions, the newness of the empty plains encouraged less than lawful behavior. Highwaymen, bandits, gangs and other criminals ruled, and it was everyone else’s responsibility to keep themselves safe.
Unfortunately, much the same is happening to the internet. While the World Wide Web isn’t exactly new, it is hardly a place of law and order. Cybercrime is at an all-time high, and major security breaches are a regular occurrence. Attacks are so commonplace that the media rarely reports on them anymore; in fact, in the last week of May, three huge security issues — the WhatsApp hack, a vulnerability in Intel chips and a bug in Cisco routers — nearly caused the internet’s infrastructure to crash and burn, but you probably didn’t hear a thing about any of them.
It’s safe to say that the internet is undergoing its Wild West phase. What does that mean for you, an average internet user, and how can you, like the law-abiding westward travelers of yore, stay safe out there?
Tech Companies Are Largely Monopolies
While images of the Wild West are largely dominated by lone cowboys and bandit clans, a more accurate depiction of the Wild West focuses on large corporations. It is thanks to enormous monopolies in industries like railroads, steel and oil that the West rose; these corporations funded boomtowns and brought wealth to areas that were previously uninhabited (by white Europeans, that is). While smaller businesses fought over the scraps, the monopolies were responsible for the sweeping changes seen by the West, for better or for worse.
Within the tech industry, much the same is happening today. While startups might seem plentiful, the truth is that monopolies like Google and Amazon are responsible for directing consumer tastes and fulfilling the majority of consumer needs. As yet, these monopolies are not regulated by the government; they are setting their own rules, even when it comes to controversial issues like data collection and use. This is causing quite a bit of dismay amongst the public, who rely heavily on these tech services but have no viable alternative when these companies do things against public will.
Eventually, monopolies in the West were either busted or severely regulated, resulting in safer and fairer living situations for all. Legislators are taking the first, hesitant steps toward regulating tech — but dire warnings from tech gurus are slowing the process. The internet was created and civilized by monopolies, but for innovation and progress to continue, we need regulation soon.
Internet Attacks Are Getting More Complex
Stories of the Wild West are rife with unlawful activity from individual ne’er-do-wells and disorganized bands of Indians, but the truth is that the West was more often plagued by intensely organized crime. The same monopolies that built the West also took advantage of it — but so did corrupt governments and large, well-ordered gangs and criminal groups. It’s safe to say that law-abiding citizens were threatened on all sides and typically were forced to fend for themselves.
Funnily enough, this is also happening in tech. It’s no secret that large tech firms are using and abusing individual user data; Facebook has lost a significant amount of credibility due to several data-related scandals in just the past year. However, more distressing is the number of government-developed malware tools popping up across the web. In 2017, the NSA experienced a data leak that revealed a number of exploits and rootkits sponsored by the state and now used by malware authors to launch devastating attacks. Other governments, to include China, North Korea and Russia, are developing similar tools and tricks to gain influence and control on the web.
Unfortunately, tech companies and governments aren’t the only ones misbehaving on the web. Users also have to contend with exceedingly knowledgeable, skilled and organized hackers intent on pilfering data, interfering with activity and generally causing expensive mayhem. There are hundreds of hacking groups, and many of them are sponsored though not controlled by state governments. However some of the most dangerous, like Morpho and Anonymous, operate by and for themselves.
Because there are so many threats from so many directions, internet users need to take it upon themselves to stay protected. If you don’t already have cyber defenses, you must download maximum internet security software to every device and be diligent about keeping your security suite updated. You must also maintain proper cyber hygiene — developing strong passwords, staying away from corrupt websites and links, downloading only from trusted sources, etc.
The Wild West wasn’t forever, and you should hope that this era of the internet won’t last much longer. With regulation, competition and more built-in protection, individual web users like you can feel safe and secure online.