On Friday 21 October, an unprecedented cyber attack hit many important websites, including Twitter, eBay and the New York Times. Initially, user access to swathes of the web was disrupted on the East Coast of the US. But the trouble quickly spread across the US and then moved on to Europe. Soon, it became clear that, in plaguing web servers with unwanted traffic, hackers hadn’t only recruited conventional computer networks to spread their malicious software (malware), but were also using web-connected consumer goods. By the following weekend, panic had grown enough for The Times to report that ‘all connected devices’ – including home coffeemakers, baby monitors and security cameras – were now ‘potentially vulnerable’, and that this could make homes ‘at risk of surveillance, burglary and blackout’.
Fear of the internet is as old as the internet itself. From the moment it gained millions of users in the 1990s, the internet has sparked paranoia about lurid images, obsessive gaming and gambling, identity theft and many other online versions of dodgy human behaviour. Yet the idea that every home contains goods that can now be mobilised against its owners is a new one.
So what’s really the issue here? It’s true that, alongside a few ‘smart’ kettles and central-heating controllers, most new TVs are now connected to the internet. This is the result of a rather desperate attempt by manufacturers to make money by capturing data on consumer habits.
Meanwhile, hackers suggest that every consumer product is prone to attack, because they want manufacturers to hire more skilled, ‘white hat’ hackers to protect their products. At the same time, IT security companies, the IT press and the wider media inflate the dangers, hoping to sell more goods and services.
In this, they find a receptive audience among those who are apprehensive about technological advances. Indeed, the financial motives of manufacturers of internet-connected fridges, preening ethical hackers, IT security firms and the media pale into insignificance compared with the pervasive anxiety that has characterised capitalism for almost three decades.