The Age of 'Digital Danger'

By Peter Bernstein September 12, 2012

It is commonplace for the media that covers technology to feature the wonders of innovation and highlight all of the “cool” things it enables and the benefits foreseen as a result of mass adoption. The glass is half full view of the digital age has, like it or not, increasingly been interrupted in the past few years by such unpleasant things as cyber attacks (malware, bots, denial of service attacks, etc.), and the need in an increasingly dangerous world to make risk mitigation of mission critical data and processes a top business priority.

Privacy and compliance issues have also dimmed the view from rose-colored glasses. However, an area that has gained less attention outside of academic and security circles, since nobody enjoys talking about “the dark side” of the Internet, is the immensely harmful ramifications the acceleration of the speed at which “information” can be disseminated and digested has wrought.

I was reminded of the importance of being mindful of the dark side is when watching the popular TV show on MSNBC, Morning Joe. For those unfamiliar, the show features a daily dose of expert commentary from a variety of perspectives on critical topics of the day. Interestingly, with the assassination of the U.S. Ambassador to Libya and the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Egypt at the top of the news cycle, the first half hour of the show was obviously devoted to these events but in the context of a discussion of what guest pundit Donny Deutsch called, “Digital Danger.”

We know the spark that lit the flame of anger engulfing the Muslim world was an amateurish film. It was promoted by a controversial U.S. pastor who despite a minuscule congregation, and condemnation from all political quarters in the U.S., gained international notoriety in the past for threatening to burn a Koran on TV. The new film portrays the prophet Mohammad as a fool, a philanderer and a religious fake. In fact, in one video clip posted on YouTube, Mohammad was shown in an apparent sex act with a woman. Blasphemous seems almost to tame a word to describe this abomination.

The pastor rightfully has been called a hate monger and an opportunistic nut. He has been universally condemned as not representing the values or policies of the U.S. Indeed, despite the belief in free speech in America some think the pastor, by putting the lives of citizens needlessly in harm’s way and inciting international animosity toward this country, should be pursued as a traitor. Unfortunately, his promotion of the video worked. It caught the intention of a global audience. We are now dealing with the incendiary consequences that already resulted in a senseless loss of life and stirred animosity to extremely dangerous levels. The point is that this ability for a fringe person to cause an international crisis is quickly becoming the centerpiece of an important discussion of “Digital Danger.”

Pundits rightfully are suggesting that for the next several years, the open microphone of the Internet and the speed at which hate and falsehoods can be distributed is far ahead of peoples’ abilities to filter information. This gets amplified as perceptions become realities at speeds heretofore unimagined and with the audiences for enormous proportions.  

There is an old saying that, “with great power comes great responsibility.” As with atomic energy, technologic breakthroughs can be used for incredible good as well as cataclysmic evil. The Internet is obviously a tool for delivering incredible good and evil as we have seen over and over. I do not pretend to know how to solve the challenges raised by “Digital Danger.” As we are witnessing in the U.S. elections from both parties, spin is in and the faster the better. The old saying, “don’t confuse me with the facts,” especially since there is constant challenging of what constitutes “facts” and who we should consider to be “trusted sources,” is unfortunately the order of the day. The term “lame-stream media” is now part of the popular vocabulary, for example.    

With the presidential debates coming up, one can only hope that the subject of Digital Danger becomes part of the discussion. As the hit Bonnie Raitt song says, “Let’s give them something to talk about.” There is no denying the existence of a real and present danger.  It is not going away and our best minds need to be thinking about what if anything can be done to mitigate its potential.   




Edited by Brooke Neuman
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