Black Death for the Internet?

Will viruses be the digital era's Black Death?

In the period running up to the year 2000 there was a mass media frenzy about the millennium bug. In its most hyped and hyperbolic form this was set to cause widespread IT meltdown and the end of civilisation as we then knew it. In reality nothing happened… and as the clocks struck midnight everything carried on exactly as before.

In the intervening 14 years, as technology has become more ubiquitous, numerous dreadful IT viruses have materialised. Illness and disease has run rife through the internet, often spread by nefarious individuals acting on their own agenda. Plague and pestilence has come and gone in small localised waves… and yet, to date, there has been no real pandemic.

Now however, we have the Hearbleed bug. Described by its website as: “a serious vulnerability in the popular OpenSSL cryptographic software library,” this innate weakness has opened the door to numerous cases of hacking and theft.  Taken on its own it may simply be one small problem (largely been fixed). But could it herald an apocalyptic future to come?

Technology and the internet are fundamental to every aspect of our lives. Emerging regions with low internet penetration, like India, are rushing online at a phenomenal pace. And the world is in a mad state of confusion as it tries to get to grips with the possibilities and difficulties of life and work transferred to the digital arena.

In the short time period the internet has been around we have seen all the usual societal problems played out. These have ranged from the social (bullying, etiquette, privacy) to the legal (compliance, governance) to, of course, the physical: health. To date though, viruses have tended to be small scale.

Exactly the same has always been true in the real world. For the most part, disease and illness remains on the family, school or village level. Yet there are exceptions. In the fourteenth century 75 – 200 million people were wiped out across Europe by the Black Death. In recent history, HIV has ravaged through countries and communities. And the threat of infections like bird flu and Ebola (the recent outbreak in Guinea has a 90% mortality rate) are a constant terror to human existence.

Unlike the human equivalent of course, the outcome of a tech pandemic won’t be mass death – but imagine the pandemonium.  Our entire lives exist online: hospital records, bank details… everything. We have a lot to lose. Maybe it won’t be long until the great scourge of technology arrives?


Kathryn Cave is Editor at IDG Connect