Wiesława Lewandowska talks with dr. Piotr Łuczuk about cyber-dangers, reality of a cyber war and ignoring cyber-safety

WIESŁAWA LEWANDOWSKA: - Cyber-safety, cyber-attack, cyber-war, cyber-terrorism – we hear these scary-sounding words recently but we do not pay more attention to them, we do not wonder on their meaning. But shouldn’t we?

DR. PIOTR ŁUCZUK: - Definitely we should! The problem of all kinds of cyber-violence is not a new phenomenon, although when looking at scientific and popular-science books from the recent years, one can think so.

Does it mean that the creators of the cyber-space did not predict today’s dangers?

They did not assume their scale like that as Internet was created as a tool assigned for military purposes. So, conflicts in the cyber-space in the purely military aspect were mentioned in the 80s of the last century. These were the first military analytics and the first scientists who began to use the notion of cyber-space and what is implied – cyber-dangers. At the turn of the 80s and 90s there were active groups of computer hackers. At that time it was a quite hermetical group of specialists for computer programming and the beginnings of Internet who were simply playing with it and whose purpose were various IT challenges. There was a kind of a game among specialists who were divided into the good and the bad ones like characters of western films, and some of them began to work for those who simply gave them more money.

The innocent games ended….

And so quickly. When today we mention surnames of the best IT specialists or internet specialists with one breath, it turns out that nearly everybody come from those hackers groups, like Kevin Mitnick, a hacker of all times, who moved to this ‘bright side of power’ after some time and today he is guarding the safety of internet, although before that – which he admits himself – he broke not only passwords but also people. In this way he warns that the problem of cyber-attacks, cyber-violence cannot be separated from our reality, that all this is not about a kind of virtual ‘Matrix’, to which we move only for a while.

Unfortunately, we are not aware of it - or we simply ignore the fact how negatively a virtual world created by somebody can influence our real world.

That is true, so cyber-criminals often use psychology and various socio-technical tricks to manipulate people, forcing particular behaviours out of them, in the so-called real world. These two worlds began to perpetuate each other at first, later get mixed together and finally there is such a paradox that we do not often know whether we function in a virtual space or the real one. The so-called widened reality, being popular only in games for children recently, today is used by shops, for example, instead of traditional mirrors for trying on clothes.

This way of using the virtual reality seems useful and not dangerous. Where is a danger?

Everywhere and the problem is just that we do not notice it; we think that cyber-criminality is an unreal problem, present only in science-fiction films, in computer games, comics. There often appears an argument – which Edward Snowden tried to fight, showing an incredible scale of cyber-vigilance – ‘after all I do not have anything to conceal’, so I can do in the cyber-space what I like. Whereas as long as we do not realize it, the game is going about our data, about information till we are exposed to a harm. During the IT war which is taking place in our eyes – although we do not want to see it – this information is just a weapon, a valuable goods.

Even the trivial one, concerning our private life, our behaviours, favourite politicians etc.?

Absolutely! This is information used not only by traders, advertisers, specialists for behavioral analysis, ordinary cyber-criminals, but also by secret intelligence of foreign countries. This information, still 30 years ago, during the cold war, was gained by spies when risking their life – today we are giving the information to them on a plate. And here it does not concern trivial things, like what we like to eat, who we like to meet or who is our enemy or to whom or to what we have weakness….Thinking that we have nothing to conceal, within private virtual exhibitionism, in fact we make intelligence data available to others.

Is ordinary everyday life of an anonymous man really interesting for spies?

We should not forget that in Internet in fact nobody is anonymous. And this our everyday life creates a net of connections and can compose quite a good knowledge about the society and particular individuals, if somebody interested in it and having suitable tools will try to put it together properly and use it for his purposes. But due to our carelessness it is not necessary to make much effort. Provided that the special services have had to build psychological profiles of their figureheads, observe them and learn their rhythm of a day for years, so they only insert a suitable password in the search engine and have everything ready, literally at their hand reach. So, the phenomenon of cyber-spying is getting stronger and stronger but we still cannot get protected from it. Why? Maybe because there are still: the rule that ‘I have nothing to conceal’ and also the belief that this whole problem ‘does not concern me’. Whereas it does concern us all and every individual. For example, its significance is proved by the fact that the creator of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg has got a covered internet camera on his laptop. So, it means that he ‘has something to conceal’!

Is it a symbolic or a real method of protecting data?

This demonstration of Zuckerberg suggests a lot and it even became popular to cover the internet camera, and it implies – unfortunately – a false impression of moving in the cyber-space safely. Technological progress has moved so far that the very covering the internet camera turns out to be only a peak of a mountain. There are tools for geo-localization, which can give our factual coordinates with accuracy up to a few meters – here I am not saying about gadgets used for spying, but about our own smart-phones which we have with us all the time. And these are the devices much more advanced than specialist computers at the times when the man was sent up onto the Moon.

Is a smart-phone our personal cyber-spy?

We can say so. We gather all information about ourselves and our friends in it, as well as the most delicate information, the deepest secrets which we do not want to share with anybody face to face. Here the main problem is a regress of interpersonal communication, transferring inter-human contacts to social media. Also criminals have moved to the cyber-space. So, the safest thing would be not using computers or smart-phones but it is unrealistic today.

But is it too late to protect the youngest generation from possible dangers when this generation cannot imagine life without the smart-phone?

We are facing an extremely complicated problem of sociology, psychology and education. This older generation which still remembers the times of creating computers, says: we made toys for you and you are only playing with them. And, indeed, it is so. A generation has already grown up, which does not remember the times without Internet or a mobile phone, which is using the cyber-toys quite irresponsibly. However, one cannot speak about a cyber-danger if the society is not aware of a danger.

We are somehow becoming the victims of cyber-violence, cyber-war, aren’t we?

Yes, we are, as what was experienced in the 80s and the 90s by only a few people – mainly people from the so-called candlestick – today concerns nearly everybody, even a few-year-old children. In a situation when instead of a dozen or even a few dozen acquaintances in real we have even a few thousand of them in the net, a phenomenon of the so-called internet hate is getting more and more popular and hurting. It is not all about the fact that the phenomenon is something new as it is not. All this is the issue of scale. It leads to serious communication disturbance. Instead of face to face, we Facebook to Facebook more and more often. It is also a vulnerable ground for a cyber-war.

It is a war among powerful groups of interests, among powerful countries?

Today every developed country has its cyber-army, is still developing cybernest armies, is trying to protect its IT structures but is not able to guard cyber-safety of particular citizens. When a dozen years ago a lot was said about a technical possibility of cyber-vigilance, it was rather in the category of a joke or abstraction. Today we know that a smart-phone on the table gathers data about us. It is not abstraction any longer but reality. All services of the world use perfect cyber-tools to get as much information about citizens in theirs and foreign countries, even the ally ones.

So, one can say that there is ‘a cold cyber-war’?

Although we do not perceive it, we can see its backstage more and more often. Recently the Chinese Huawei has been accused of a wide-ranging cyber-spying and we remember a cyber-attack on Estonia in 2007 when the Russian cyber-services paralyzed the work of Estonian national institutions effectively or the work of Israeli hackers – the Stuxnet virus which had blocked the Iranian atomic program for a few years. In the cyber-space there is still this kind of a test of powers.

How are these cyber-powers are arranged among powerful countries? Similarly as in real?

This clash of the civilization of the West and the East described by Samuel Huntington years ago looks a bit different today. One the one hand there are powers of the West, that is, NATO, in which the United States are the main leader, but on the others hand – there is no monolith. In the East there appear cyber-armies competing with one another; they are from: Russia, China, Northern Korea and the countries of the Near East. The most serious conflict in the cyber-space is on the axes of Russia – USA and Israel – Iran. The first two serious cyber-wars were caused by Russia – in Estonia (2007) and Georgia (2008).

So, the cyber-war is a real phenomenon, but an average inhabitant of the globe knows very little about it?

Yes, but here it is not necessary to use a conventional army. We can say that the cyber-war is a war without war, without ammunition, without victims, only computers are attacked in it, as well as the tele-informative structure, and it seems not to concern us. It does.

And isn’t it so?

Of course, it is not. The massive cyber-attack on the structures of a country or society (de-information) always destabilizes the system and brings chaos to us. Assumption of the cyber-war are to cause as serious harm as possible at low costs and achieve particular strategic purposes. Moreover, the cyber-war may be the beginning for particular military actions in real and we may face up the so-called hybrid war – like in Ukraine.

What is a massive cyber-attack?

This is a whole series of interference into the tele-informative structures which de-organizes work in many areas and may lead to a paralysis of the whole country and make life of its citizens seriously difficult. Not everyone knows that he is the target of a cyber-attack – the person is de-informed and manipulated by internet propaganda machine. Cyber-aggressors employ an army of the so-called trolls whose tasks are de-informing, causing commotion, raising social conflicts, destroying or creating authorities, etc. It is easy to send an army, tanks onto such a prepared ground….

And only a cyber-attack is sufficient to achieve a predetermined target like economic, political profits…

Indeed, sometimes an attacker wants to enforce a particular social or political behavior. In Greece being in the economic crisis, for example, one could only introduce the limit of taking out money from cash machines. There appeared a chaos, anarchy, panic. Unfortunately, we still are not aware of possible real consequences of cyber-dangers. And the words like cyber-war, cyber-attack still sound strange and mythical. Unfortunately, the stranger they seem, the more endangered we are.

Translated by Aneta Amrozik

Niedziela 6/2019 (10 II 2019)

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Lidia Dudkiewicz • E-mail: redakcja@niedziela.pl