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Hugo Rifkind

Are we all potential cyberterrorists now?

The TalkTalk hack suggests we might be. So will the spies have to snoop on us all?

29 October 2015

9:00 AM

29 October 2015

9:00 AM

Hollywood got there first, of course. Back in 1983, before most of us even learned — then forgot again — what a modem was, Matthew Broderick starred in the seminal and brilliant WarGames. He played a computer hacker; a teenager who goes hunting for games on the global computer network that isn’t quite called the internet, yet. Unwittingly, he instead hacks into Norad, the North American Aerospace Defense Command and, via a convoluted series of events we need not go into here, very nearly sparks World War Three.

Various angry generals assume, first of all, that he is the Russians. Then they assume he must at least be working for the Russians. But he isn’t. He’s just some kid who isn’t even Ferris Bueller yet. At his fingertips, nonetheless, is the expertise to blow up the world. I thought of him this week, when a boy of 15 was arrested in County Antrim on suspicion of hacking into the broadband provider which sponsors The X Factor.

It might not have been him. He was freed on bail the next day. The point, though, is that it could have been. No, the hacking of TalkTalk was not quite World War Three, although Lord knows you could have been forgiven for thinking it was, given the fuss made on Radio 4’s Today programme. Was somebody senior a customer, perhaps? Either way, the initial suspicion was that it could have been cyberterrorists of some sort; perhaps Islamists. Somebody ominous. And maybe it was. Or maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it was nobody much at all.

Western security services are on a cyber-PR push right now. Possibly it’s the groundwork for Britain’s pending Investigatory Powers Bill, which seems to be popping up at the same time as America’s Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act. Always, the stated targets are big and scary. Having finally wearied of TalkTalk, the BBC had Richard Ledgett, the deputy director of America’s National Security Agency, who spoke in a gravelly voice about the threat of cyber-attacks by hostile nation-states. As our own bill draws closer, expect to hear others warning of cyberterrorism, organised crime, paedophile rings.


These are all things worth worrying about, more so now than ever. One quiet upshot of the defection of the former CIA analyst Edward Snowden in 2013 (you remember; there was nothing else in the Guardian for months) was that many US-based internet companies — Facebook, Gmail, etc. — switched on encryption by default. As a result, at least so far as we know, western security services suddenly found it much harder to monitor email traffic, to whatever extent they were already legally allowed to do so. We are on the cusp, in other words, of near-uncrackable encryption becoming ubiquitous. Everybody will use it. Indeed, you’ll probably need a high level of technical nous to turn it off.

According to the technology press, the government’s pending bill is best understood as a workaround for this. However strongly you encrypt your communications, you always need at some point to decrypt them again in order to read them. This bill places a focus not on intercepting traffic, but on the devices that are ultimately used to read it. Which, in the case of terrorists, criminals and paedos, seems all for the good.

What about everybody else, though? What about, for example, 15-year-old boys from County Antrim? How do you monitor them? And if you don’t, how do you catch them if it turns out — and of course, it might not — that they have hacked TalkTalk? Or to put that another way, how do you catch the bad guys, when the bad guys could be anybody at all?

The New Yorker once ran a brilliant cartoon of a floppy-eared hound sitting at a keyboard. ‘On the internet,’ ran the caption, ‘nobody knows you are a dog.’ Nobody knows, either, whether you’re an Islamist cyberterrorist or a kid doing the digital age equivalent of hurling a brick through a window. We are about to dive into a big old debate about the dangers that lurk online, from which our government wishes to protect us. Sooner or later, though, somebody has to be honest about where they can come from, which is anywhere at all. One day, almost anybody will be able to start World War Three. So do we want the spooks to be watching almost everybody? Or what?

Swede victory

Triumph! For years now, I have been conducting an annual campaign to restore the Halloween turnip. A campaign hindered, I’ll grant you, by the South calling a turnip a swede and the North and Scots doing vice versa, which rather complicates matters, and must cause a fair degree of shouting at grocers in the Midlands. And frankly, apart from a handful of people on Twitter (we carve, we bleed, we share photos, it’s all rather forlorn) nobody has given a damn.

Not this year, though. This year, thanks to an apparent shortage of those damned squash-family-answer-to-the-grey–squirrel pumpkins, Halloween turnip advocacy has been visible on the pages of the Daily Mail, the Telegraph, the Independent and the Guardian, and in the news on both Sky and ITV. This is our moment. This is our tipping point. Although I’ve a nagging fear they might mean swedes. But still.


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