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The fragile internet is a threat to the economy

The internet has had a tough few months.

In June, the outage of Fastly Inc.’s content delivery network forced some of the world’s largest e-commerce and media websites to go offline. Later, T-Mobile US Inc. and the streaming service Twitch from Amazon.com Inc. suffered massive data protection violations. And last week, Instagram and WhatsApp, Facebook Inc.’s main social network, were down for about six hours. On Friday it was that time again – albeit a shorter one.

All incidents had a common response from the company. It goes something like this: We’re sorry, it was an accidental configuration mistake, we’ll do better next time! Following the failure of Facebook, the engineering director of security software company Cloudflare Inc. recalled the fragile nature of the Internet, with millions of interconnected systems relying on each other to function.

In the early days of the internet, there was a time when these excuses were acceptable. But the internet and many of these companies form the backbone of the modern economy today. Billions of consumers and millions of small businesses rely on Facebook communication tools in their daily lives. With the web of rubber bands and toothpicks held together, it is clear that the US must urgently take action to mitigate these vulnerabilities.

What can be done First, we should hold companies accountable if they fail to implement adequate safeguards and security policies. The sheer frequency of the problems shows that the industry as a whole is not taking the issue seriously. Organizations are not prioritizing the problem or investing enough to fix it. This is why it is important to make negligence even more painful by increasing the size of fines and liability for management teams.

T-Mobile is one of the most egregious examples. According to The Wall Street Journal, a self-proclaimed hacker said he was able to break into the carrier’s systems through an unprotected router, with devastating consequences. The company announced in August that it had compromised personal information on nearly 50 million accounts – including some social security numbers and driver’s licenses. Incredibly, this latest incident marks T-Mobile’s fifth data breach in the past three years.

Another possible solution would be to strengthen state supervision. With Facebook and Fastly saying their failures were due to simple employee mistakes, I shudder when I consider how much damage a renegade employee or government sponsored actor could do. Much like the Federal Reserve’s auditors want to prevent systemic risk by working on-site at financial institutions, a new team of regulators should be empowered to review the redundancy and security plans of key technology companies. At the very least, we must do everything we can to reduce future human network configuration errors.

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Yes, the Biden government has recognized the importance of the country’s internet vulnerabilities for national and economic security reasons. But so far the White House hasn’t done much to tightly regulate the private sector other than develop voluntary standards. Governments need to get stronger.

We can’t let companies off the hook all the time. There is a lot to be done to prevent the worst-case scenario from becoming a reality.

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