The power of information networks

Web-based communications play a key role in world events

It’s been fascinating to watch the different ways that networks have played a role in recent world events. One was the story that came out of Egypt just after the peaceful overthrow of former President Hosni Mubarak.

Egypt’s leaders were successful in shutting off the country’s Internet service. Experts didn’t think that could happen, but Egypt apparently had what the New York Times called a kill switch to the Internet, primarily because the government controlled the few transmission pipes into the country. It didn’t save the regime, but the fact remains that they were still able to do it.

The second story is the extent to which Twitter and social media played a role in organizing the demonstrations in Tahrir Square, Cairo. Only 19 percent of Egypt’s 80 million people can connect to the Internet. Although that is the highest percentage of connectivity in the Arab world, according to a recent story titled “How wired are Egyptians?”, you wouldn’t think that would be enough people twittering demonstration instructions to one another to topple someone like Mubarak.

I’m guessing, though, that probably half or more of those many millions with network connectivity live in Cairo. Combine that with a camera trained around the clock on Tahrir Square beaming protest images to the world, and we’re witnessing revolution at the speed of the network. Now minirevolts are breaking out all over the region in places such as Bahrain, Libya and Yemen. Credit the Internet — and Al Jazeera, of course — with transmitting the blueprint for peaceful revolution around the world.

The third network development of late is the continuously fascinating story about the Stuxnet worm that infected the industrial controls of Iran’s centrifuge machines and set back the country's nuclear program by a couple of years. For some time, I’ve been watching to see if the U.S. military or CIA would ever be caught engaging in an offensive cyber action because they only ever discuss security and cyber defense.

We hear about how Defense Department computers are constantly being attacked from outside enemies. But we never hear about the U.S. government ever going on the cyber offensive. So the fact that DOD sources are winking at Stuxnet makes it a milestone for cyber offense.

If some of us who deal with the network on a daily basis have forgotten about the power and potential of Web-based communications, these three examples should serve as wake-up call to the power it yields, particularly as a weapon of blunt force, as it was in Egypt, and one of complexity and finesse, as it apparently is in the case of Stuxnet.

Is there anything more wondrous and dangerous in today’s world than the network?

About the Author

Barry Rosenberg is editor-in-chief of Defense Systems. Follow him on Twitter: @BarryDefense.

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