Software Development
COVID-19 / Cybersecurity / Digital access / Internet

What does a pandemic mean for the internet?

A local internet and policy expert weighs in on changes to the way people are using the web, current cybersecurity threats and how to protect your privacy during the health crisis.

Katie Jordan. (Courtesy photo)
The internet has long been a connector beyond the physical. Now, it’s the only reason people are able to see their faraway loved ones and complete remote projects with their coworkers amid pandemic-prompted social distancing. It’s a great moment for the technology — and for hackers.

Reston, Virginia-based Internet Society is an advocacy organization that, in its words, promotes “the development of the Internet as a global technical infrastructure, a resource to enrich people’s lives, and a force for good in society.”

Katie Jordan, a resident of Philadelphia’s Graduate Hospital neighborhood, joined the team in 2018 after serving as a policy and program manager at Next Century Cities where she worked with emerging tech issues. As Internet Society’s senior policy manager, Jordan develops and advocates for policy related to internet access and security.

She talked to Technical.ly about what the Internet Society is focusing on now and if COVID-19 is going to change the way we use the internet.

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Technical.ly: What does Internet Society do when there’s not a pandemic, and how has your work shifted recently?

Jordan: It’s made everything feel more urgent. We’re not doing anything different right now. We’re just doing a lot more of it as quickly as we possibly can.

I think anyone who didn’t understand just how important the internet is has to understand it now. It’s absolutely critical for every person to be online when there’s no other option to connect with people. We hear people being told they have to work from home, but they don’t have internet access at home. A huge part of my work now is  with policy makers to see what we can do and also working with community members to see how we can get equipment to them to actually put together networks in their own homes.

As critical services send their employees home, it is essential that they have a secure way to communicate. We’re still continuing with some of our academic research on finding the things that build the internet up and the kinds of policies that can continue its growth long-term.

How is the pandemic changing the way people use the internet? Is the internet itself being changed? 

We’re seeing a lot more people use it in innovative ways. From a work and a personal perspective, we’ve always had tools like FaceTime and video chat but now people are realizing how useful those tools can be. I hope the internet will change in that people will come to understand how urgent the need for access and secured technologies are. We’re seeing companies having to stand up and say, “not only are these services available but they’re available in a secure way.”

I hope policy makers use funds for broadband infrastructure. There’s some band-aid fixes going on. Some communities can use those band-aids, but if you put together these networks using that temporary fix, what happens 60 days from now? It’s not really clear. I hope it will be easier for communities to get access to that infrastructure.

How is the internet able to handle all of this traffic?

From the very beginning when COVID-19 concerns started to be raised, network engineers started to figure out what they could do to their networks to make sure they didn't fall through.

When we talk about the internet, I think some people are thinking about Netflix, Facebook and Google. The way a platform is able to handle increased traffic is different from the way the infrastructure can handle it. We’ve been trying to explain that Netflix, for example, has been overwhelmed with how much traffic they’re getting and they’re taking measures to make sure they’re still able to deliver content. That’s not an impact of the underlying networks. While those networks are seeing big increases in traffic, it’s not anything they can’t handle.

From the very beginning when COVID-19 concerns started to be raised, network engineers started to figure out what they could do to their networks to make sure they didn’t fall through. So from an infrastructure perspective, I think we’re in a good position.

What are the biggest threats to cybersecurity in this moment? 

The biggest threat to cybersecurity is that so many people are going home and using platforms and services they don’t understand the implications of. If you work in a government office, in finance or you’re dealing with people’s personal information, there’s a massive risk that individuals who don’t understand the security could start sending things in insecure ways that open us up to a future attack.

One of the things we’ve been speaking to people in those critical positions about is the need to invest time in end-to-end encrypted services. That’s the best way we have right now to make sure everyone’s information stays safe. My biggest worry is people relying on a service. Is it protected? Maybe we don’t feel that now, but three months or six months if there’s a breach on a service that wasn’t encrypted, we could have huge problems for public safety.

Have there been examples of new, bigger cyber attacks since the pandemic started? 

We know there’s a lot more phishing attacks where people are sending emails or texts that look like they’re an official alert about the response to COVID-19. In actuality, they are malware. It’s on the rise, and I don’t think it’s going to slow down by any means. No matter who you are or where you are, when you see a link, your first thought [should be], “Is this real or is this something malicious?”

How should people balance the importance of cybersecurity with the importance for privacy? 

I think they go hand in hand in a lot of ways. If you’re using an end-to-end encrypted service, then you’re protecting your privacy more because there’s no way for an intermediary to get access to things you’re doing. For example, we use iMessage, WhatsApp and things like that. Those protect your privacy. If you’re using iMessage, only the person you sent that message to can see it so your privacy is more protected.

Any other trends you’re noticing?

We’re all learning together. The fundamental need for interaction is much more apparent. That’s what the internet does. It connects us and helps us communicate. People are getting creative with they ways they’re communicating. I hope we continue to rely on it for daily communication and experiences. It took this moment for everyone to collectively realize just how important it is to keep up connections and find interesting ways to communicate when you can’t be physically together.

Series: Journalism / Coronavirus

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