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Last Updated: Tuesday, 16 December, 2003, 08:40 GMT
Cyber threats risk net's future
By Clark Boyd
Technology correspondent in Geneva

The hunger in poor nations for going online is not without danger. With improved access, comes the threat of ever more internet security violations.

Delegates at the Un summit
Security was one of the many issues discussed in Geneva
As delegates at last week's UN net summit in Geneva focused on how information technology can be used to improve the lives of the poor, others highlighted the issue of safe surfing.

"Computers and networks are becoming what's called a utility," said Rheinhold Scholl who works with the International Telecommunication Union, the UN group that organised the event.

"A utility is something that you notice when you don't have it anymore. And the same is becoming truer for computers and networks.

"If that's the case," said Mr Scholl, "then it's a prerequisite that computers and networks are secure."

In other words, the same viruses and worms that can heavily damage computers and networks in the developed world will be able to wreck havoc in developing countries as well.

Moreover, countries like Brazil and the China are quickly becoming hotbeds for such computer attacks. And it's going to be all the more difficult for them to stop it.

"Developing countries often are among the top sources of attack, but also targets of attacks," said World Bank technology specialist Carlos Braga.

"Developing countries will have to dedicate, at policy level, at the private sector level, at in academia will have to invest increasing resources to deal with the complexity of how to address issues of trust in cyber space."

Internet laws

That is a tall order for many developing countries. African delegates especially spoke at length about such problems at the UN talks.

They say their governments first and foremost lack the technical know-how to prevent most forms of cyber-crime.

Woman using PC
If current trends persist, the internet will inevitably evolve into a chaotic formation, swamped with tons of different spam messages, myriads of viruses
Garry Kondakov, Kaspersky Labs
But Eugeny Shabligin, the Director of Jet Infosystems, an internet security firm based in Russia, said it will take more than just technical skill to make computer users across the globe feel secure.

"A very important part of it is the legislation," he explained.

"Without the proper legislation, and even more important, effective enforcement of this legislation, we cannot expect the trust between the government and the people."

That trust is vital. The internet grew up outside of any kind of world regulatory body. Many experts believe that the net's slightly anarchic ways are its greatest strength - a source of creativity and innovation.

But cyber-crime, they say, is quickly eroding that trust.

"If current trends persist, the internet will inevitably evolve into a chaotic formation, swamped with tons of different spam messages, myriads of viruses," said Garry Kondakov, who Kaspersky Labs, a Russian anti-virus company.

"The home users as well as the various business organisations will refuse to use this global network, as it will become the main source of infections."

'Collective responsibility'

Summit negotiators here have tried to make internet security a central pillar of their action plan. The plan calls for governments to work together, and with the private sector, to coordinate global internet security.

No nation has more of a stake in that than the United States. America leads the world as the biggest source of, and target for, internet attacks.

"I was particularly pleased to see a reference in the documents themselves to a culture of cyber-security," said US Ambassador David Gross, who helps formulate US information technology policy at the State Department.

"That reflects our view and the view of the world that security issues are not just the issue of governments, but rather it's a collective responsibility in the sense that companies, individuals, all have a responsibility to make sure that networks are secure."

This will no doubt be a weighty burden on many developing countries, make heavier by the lack of magic formula for net security.

Developing nations, it seems, may more or less have to deal with cyber-crime on their own.

Clark Boyd is technology correspondent for The World, a BBC World Service and WGBH Radio Boston co-production



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