Stop pretending there’s a difference between “online” and “real life”


Enlarge / My face is made of internet. (credit: Fiona Staples)

Sometimes I get into one of those conversations about the Internet where the only way I can reply is to quote from The IT Crowd: “Are you from the past?” I say that every time someone asserts that the online world is somehow separate from real life. You’d be surprised how much this comes up, even after all these years of people’s digital shenanigans leading to everything from espionage and murder to international video fame and fancy book deals.

But now that the U.S. has a president-elect who communicates with the American people almost exclusively via Twitter and YouTube, it’s really time to stop kidding ourselves. Before the election, many of us (including me) would have shrugged off the fake news stories piling up in the margins of our Facebook feeds. Nobody takes that stuff seriously, right? The election of Donald Trump and several recent tweets from the House Science Committee are two strong pieces of evidence that, yes, people do.

In reality, politics have straddled the digital and meatspace for decades. Though government officials may have just learned about “the cyber,” people working in computer security have been dealing with criminal and whimsical incursions into their systems since the late 20th century. It was 1990 when the infamous Operation Sundevil swept up innocents in a massive Secret Service dragnet operation to stop carders. The Stuxnet worm, which affected physical operations of centrifuges at a uranium enrichment plant in Iran, is only the most obvious example of how digital ops can have consequences away from the keyboard.

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