Martin Vander Weyer

The internet is broken – and we can no longer do without it

Plus: Why is everyone so beastly about Mike Ashley?

The internet is broken – and we can no longer do without it
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‘The internet is broken,’ a corporate chieftain told me last week. It was an arresting remark, but he did not mean that his home Wi-Fi hub had gone down and required a jab with a paperclip, as mine frequently does. He meant that the entire web has become so insecure — so plagued by industrial-scale scammers, viral anarchists and, according to the US Department of Justice, Chinese military hackers — that it can no longer be trusted for any form of confidential data transmission, from online payments to state secrets.

By way of confirmation, as I type, in comes an email with a toxic fake ‘invoice’ attached. Among the last few days’ worth of deleted items, I can see half a dozen well-crafted attempts at data theft or worse, including ‘Click here’ messages purporting to be from BT, Santander and Paypal, and a ‘Thought you might be interested in this’ link from a hacked lady member of the House of Lords.

Perhaps one of them contained a ‘ransom-ware trojan’ called CryptoLocker that aims to encrypt my files then demand payment to decrypt them again; or Gameover Zeus — ‘the most sophisticated virus ever… used to steal millions of dollars around the world,’ according to a recent report. At the personal level, only multiple passwords and constant vigilance offer any hope of day-to-day protection; one peril is fake emails offering to cure viruses but actually inserting new ones.

At the government and big-company level, many billions will have to be invested to conserve the integrity of systems that are now too interwoven and too dependent on speed to revert to safer, slower channels. In the ruling fever for web-based solutions, it turns out we have consigned much of our commercial and administrative life to a technology most users barely understand, and with no conception of the risks it carries.

A report from the computer security firm McAfee this week declared cyber-crime to be almost as big as the global drugs trade and costing the UK £6.8 billion a year. Some experts took issue with McAfee’s big numbers — including a global cost of £266 billion, and an estimate of ‘150,000 European jobs lost’ a year. But all agree that the problem is a serious threat to growth in the advanced economies and that its measurable size is misleading anyway, because so much of it goes unreported. For all the talk of international law-enforcement co-operation, this is not a category of wrong-doing which our constabularies (reported this week to be cutting back on horses and dogs) are in any sense equipped to investigate. Nor are afflicted states likely to share everything they know — because you don’t have to be Julian Assange to suspect that arms of the state far remote from your local police station are the biggest hackers of all.

Gameover Zeus, I read, has been disrupted by agents of the FBI and the DoJ who warn that ‘users have just two weeks before it strikes again’. Alarmism may also be part of this story, but the perils of the internet age are all too apparent. If you’re making a list of thunderbolts that might disrupt the UK economic recovery so graciously acknowledged by Christine Lagarde of the IMF this week, cyber-collapse is certainly one of them.

The reluctant billionaire

I’m curious to know why everyone is so horrid about Mike Ashley, the Sports Direct founder and Newcastle United owner. Ranked 23rd in the UK Rich List at a net worth of £3.75 billion, he was bracketed with the Duke of Westminster as an exemplar of disgusting wealth in a controversial Oxfam report calling for more progressive taxation. He was also described this week on a Newcastle supporters’ website as ‘a man so distrusted and despised by his own fans they actively campaign for his removal’. But he’s also a remarkable self-made success story, so I think The Spectator should speak up for him, or at least offer him helpful tips on how to improve his image.

A former squash coach, Ashley opened his first shop in Maidenhead in 1982, built a chain of 400 outlets with 20,000 staff, bought up famous sports equipment brands, and went public in 2007. The shares floundered amid disquiet over his management style, but if you happened to buy them at the low point in late 2008 you could have multiplied your money twentyfold. While other sports retailers struggled through the recession, Ashley thrived — but relations with City investors (he still holds 62 per cent of the company) were rocky, and they twice refused him the mega-bonuses he felt were his due. Now he’s back in the news, touting a £200 million staff share options scheme of which, as ‘executive deputy chairman’, he evidently expects the lion’s share.

Does he deserve it? Who knows — perhaps other Sports Direct staff deserve it more, since according to the Unite union, 90 per cent of them are employed on zero-hours contracts. Ashley has already cashed £1.2 billion out of the business in share sales, though he has taken no salary in recent years. As for his record at Newcastle, his investment in the club is estimated at £260 million but he was never forgiven for the departure of Kevin Keegan as manager in 2008 and a brief fall out of the Premier League in 2009-10. Reportedly an affable chap in private, he’s sometimes seen at matches wearing club kit and mixing with the crowd — but the crowd seems to loathe him.

Other than that, Ashley keeps to himself and never talks to the media. Divorced and approaching 50, holed up in a neo-Georgian Totteridge mansion which he festoons with Christmas lights, he has drawn comparisons with Howard Hughes. Maybe the image problem is his refusal to act like the billionaire he is: the British idea of social mobility is confirmed by self-made plutocrats turning into toffs, not behaving like sweaty football fans. Mike Ashley needs to take himself upmarket: a trip to Savile Row; a bid to buy Harrods from the Qataris; an exclusive Spectator Life interview; and perhaps, since Oxfam has connected them, a weekend’s shooting with the Duke of Westminster. I’m standing by like Jeeves to advise.