The Internet is Not Your Friend

 

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I should have seen it coming when "friend" became a verb.

I refer, of course, to the ability to friend someone on Facebook. But while Facebook may be in the hot seat right now in the US and Europe, I am not interested in turning up the temperature. Rather, I am interested in what "friending" says about us and this thing called the internet.

Would you go into the town square and start sharing your most intimate secrets with total strangers? Then why do you do it on the internet?

Today, your digital device of choice – computer, tablet or phone – does almost nothing without the help of a global network of networks linking billions of devices around our frail planet. It not only gives you access to them, it is constantly doing things at the command of distant and anonymous masters.

The trouble is that some of them are not your friends. They are online ads. They are phishing emails, viruses, malware, botnets and ransomware. They are digital pollution that darken the virtual skies, poison the virtual water and require constant vigilance to avoid.

But any cybersecurity expert will tell you that the lack of constant vigilance is the number one threat to the networks they try to protect. That's you and me: our endless willingness to click on a link, to share personal and proprietary information with complete strangers in the virtual town square, to treat the internet as though it is our best friend.

It is not. But here's what interest me: why is it taking humanity so long to catch up with this reality? Why do we not change our ways in response to Russians hacking elections and credit monitoring services spitting up financial secrets on millions of Americans (including me)?

I think it is because the brave new world of data has blown up our boundaries.

The device in your hand, on your lap or on your desk is yours. It is friendly territory. It has your contacts, your favorites, your files and your secrets. The generation that grew up with smartphones seems to go further. They treat their phones like lovers: the last thing they think of at night and the first thing they touch in the morning. What we are failing to grasp on a gut level is that this device, which feels so personal, so much a friend, is also one end of the internet, which has never been and will never be your friend.

When we truly understand this fundamental fact – in the same way we understand such things as love, fear, birth and death – we will treat that device as it deserves. A stranger with which we share our lives because it is so valuable. A slave purchased at the auction block but ever plotting our demise. A window not only on the world's beauty but on its awfulness. When you rub the lamp and summon the genie, you would do well to consider carefully the wishes that you make. You could be living with them for a very, very long time.

Photo credit: Antonio, Pena Zapateria, Flickr Creative Commons, commercial use allowed

Robert Bell is co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, where he heads its research, analysis and content development activities.
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