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Experts envision the future of the internet

US survey finds anxiety among internet community

Think hooking all your gadgets, appliances and clothing up to the internet is the ultimate in futuristic convenience? If you're worried about privacy, security and safety, then you may want to think again.

According to a survey titled "The Future of the Internet" recently released by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, the western world's growing dependence on the internet is making it a flashing electronic target for terrorists.

Sixty-six percent of those surveyed – US technology experts, scholars, industry officials and interested members of the public – predict that there will be at least one devastating attack on the internet's infrastructure or the country's power grid in the next ten years.

"If there was anything resembling a consensus in our survey, this concern about threats to the internet was it," the survey's authors said. The kind of attack to expect, however, was anybody's guess. Some experts agreed that as the web gets more complicated, viruses, worms and Trojan horses will become more complicated as well. Others argued that, while an attack might be costly, it would probably not create suffering or loss of life.

"Among those who agreed, many, many experts questioned the word devastating," said Susannah Fox, the project's Associate Director. "These experts said, look, an attack on the network is not going to be as bad as, say, a hurricane. A lot of security experts said people are working every day to secure the network and make sure something devastating doesn't happen. They all agree attacks are going on now, and will continue to happen, they are quite hopeful it will not be devastating," Fox said.

There might be more to fear from increased dependence on the internet, however, than a terrorist attack. According to the survey, by the year 2014 most of our gadgets and appliances will be plugged in. As a result, experts predict there will be an increasing number of arrests due to stepped up surveillance by democratic governments as well as totalitarian regimes.

But some experts disagreed that such surveillance would be used solely for the purpose of making arrests.

"I agree there will be lots of surveillance, but I don't see it being turned over to government authorities," said Susan Crawford, a law professor and policy fellow with the Center for Democracy and Technology. "Instead, it will be used to market to us in ever-more-personalised ways."

Experts also agreed that by 2014 network security still will not be stable enough for Americans to feel comfortable voting online.

"I don't think they'll be voting online in 100 years," said Curtis Gans of the Committee for the study of the American Electorate. "To vote online, you would have to have 100-percent reliability and protection against software failure, hackers, viruses, hardware failure and privacy protection. I don't think that's ever going to happen."

Asked what people should take from the survey, Fox said researchers want the report to be "a window into the future," as seen by "internet revolutionaries; they're really on the cutting edge. These are people who are highly wired. They experience the internet only through a broadband connection, so their view is a very certain view… [The report] gives some points of view that people might not have heard before."


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