“And finally, in the years to come, most human exchange will be virtual rather than physical, consisting not of stuff but the stuff of which dreams are made. Our future business will be conducted in a world made more of verbs than nouns.” —John Perry Barlow, 1994
A key to the success of the Roman empire was its extended roadway system. Designed by planners called mensors, and executed by Roman legions, they were transnational, connecting the then-known world across culture and region. They are seen as an infrastructure of empire, expanding economy by trade, knowledge, and security, bringing prolific wealth and new ideas to every corner of Rome’s vast territory, and creating a superhighway for defense and conquest. As wonderful as they sound and as much good as they did for antiquity, they were not always safe. Knowing the amount of wealth they carried, the roads were frequented by bandits and criminals1. Jesus Christ of Nazareth expanded upon this in the Good Samaritan parable in the gospel of Luke. While a factitious story, the parable is based on a real fear faced by denizens of the ancient world.
Today’s internet is the modern version of the Via Publicae2. It’s an apt metaphor. The internet has changed the world for good in many ways, bringing a wealth of knowledge, opportunity, and equality to nearly every corner of the globe. Its value to the global economy, and in effect the end consumer, is priceless. If the internet were to crash, our way of life would be severely affected. However, where we tend to stop short in this metaphor is how our virtual assets are just as exposed and available for the taking as the physical assets were on the roads of the ancient world.
In the early 2000s, a gang of criminals unsuccessfully broke into the Millennium Dome in London’s South end. A division of Scotland Yard foiled their plans, preventing an estimated $700 million (in today’s currency) from being stolen3. Eighteen years later, halfway around the world, another heist took place. This time there were no car chases, men in hoods, or canvassing of the “target.” The thieves, instead, used a keyboard and mouse to walk away quite literally with over $530 million4. No authorities were aware of the impending attack.
As we reflect on the quasi-prophetic postulate by John Perry, a gut check comes to fruition. We realize that, while our natural understanding of the world is being shaped and reshaped by an intangible digital reality, the lens which colors our perspective still holds fast to safe-deposit boxes, dead bolts, and security cameras.
The world is slowly waking up to and realizing that the greatest store of value in the history of mankind is sitting in the open, as if on the road to Rome, with threat actors drooling at the prospect, and no sign of a Roman legion anywhere near to protect it. Every company, organization, and more than half the global population has their virtual worth caravanning across the digital highway, many of whom are oblivious to the criminals who await just around the bend.
As Roderick Jones5, a leading security expert and former detective with the Scotland Yard explains, there is no legal offensive capability for today’s virtual merchants. You can’t hack back, or rather, you shouldn’t. It’s illegal, and most definitely reckless. Practically speaking, the internet is still in the early days of conceptualization. We are in the Wild West, exploring a new frontier, the law and government catching up to innovation. We must rely entirely on our defensive posture, giving criminals second thought before attempting to raid our businesses, and battling off any attacker that comes after us. Just as important as physical security has been, so goes cyber security.
Take a moment to reflect on your digital caravan and who or what someone could do to take that. Would prospective thieves be staring at a helpless, defenseless walking dollar sign, or a robust, armored wagon with defensive weaponry? Have you put as much thought and resources into your cybersecurity as your physical security? If not, reach out to a cybersecurity professional and get some advice in setting up your digital defenses.
- Fayûm Towns and Their Papyri, B.P. Grenfell, A.S. Hunt and D.G. Hogarth, London, 1900 (Egypt Exploration Society, Graeco-Roman Memoirs 3), pp. 259-60.
- Internet: A Modern Roman Road System?” The Motley Fool, Dec. 21, 2016.
- “The Millienium Dome Diamond Heist,” The True Crime Edition, July 9, 2021.
- “$530 million cryptocurrency heist may be biggest ever,” CNN Business, Jan. 29, 2018.
- Rodrerick Jones, CNAS.org.
This column originally appeared in the July 2022 issue of SMT007 Magazine.