Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Google: A Virtual Superpower

Google started with a simple enough idea a little more then a decade ago. The number of inbound links to a webpage is a good indication of its relevancy for a given topic. Fast forward 10 years and Google has become an internet giant. No longer confining itself to strictly search, which it still dominates, it has branched out into all manor of web-based applications. Google has a web mail client (Gmail), social networking site (Orkut), two video services (Google Video and YouTube), blogging platform (Blogger), shopping search engine (Froogle), world map applications (Google Maps and Google Earth), document platform (Google Docs), web browser (Chrome), and a mobile phone platform (Android), just to name a few. The whole article could be spent on their products and projects, but that would miss the fundamental point.

The fundamental point is that intentionally or not, Google’s Virtual Superpower status has translated into real world geopolitical power. Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. First, a simple premise: knowledge is power. Few would disagree with the old adage; and an argument could be made that most who would disagree have never experienced a true conflict. Examples are endless. Tanks and planes make for spectacular explosions, and the soldiers on the ground make for compelling human interest pieces. More often than not, what determines the outcome of the battle, or at the very least the time and expenditure it will take one side to win, is information. For a quick example, look at the Battle of Brittan (World War II). Germany had swept across Europe and was knocking on England’s door. All that stood between survival and a likely defeat of the British via a massive German amphibious assault was the Royal Air Force. Facing them was the numerically superior and more experienced Luftwaffe. By the skin of their teeth, the English managed to hold out. The reason? Radar. The English knew where the Germans were going to be and deployed their limited resources to maximum effect.

Troop movements are just one facet of knowledge that is key in a geopolitical struggle. Disseminating information to garner help can be even more important. Increasingly, the best and preferred method for spreading information is electronically over the internet. A little more than 60 years after World War II and we come to the recent Russian invasion of Georgia. While the media images focused on the damage (explosions mostly from the tanks and planes) as they told stories of the soldiers’ exploits (human interest pieces), the information war was almost totally ignored.

The conflict saw a few historic firsts. The war was the first in history to see a physical attack coincide with a virtual assault. As the Russians were bombing Georgia a massive Denial of Service (DOS) attack was launched from Russian territory. Put simply, a DOS attack is essentially an attempt to overload a website. A website can only handle so much traffic at one time. A DOS attack sends more traffic to a website than it can handle, effectively knocking it off line or slowing it down to the point that it becomes useless to legitimate attempts at accessing the webpage until the attack stops. The DOS attack was launched against the Georgian government’s webpage and was successful. It was also the first time that web defense experts were sent as aid from one country to another at war.

DOS attacks, like many other web-based attacks, are almost impossible to trace back to a source—not the source of the attack, but the influence behind it. Launching a DOS attack is fairly easy. All you have to do is constantly refresh a webpage to flood it with traffic. For the attack to work, you need many computers acting at the same time. The question of who launched the attack comes down to a choice between the government, the people, or a business organization (which would likely have been paid off). The answer is most likely a combination, but we digress. The important fact is that it worked and the Georgian government was locked out of the most important information disseminating tool, the internet.

In response, Georgia turned to none other than Google. When their government websites were knocked off line, they made free Blogger blogs hosted by Google. The Russians were unable to knock out the Blogger blog.

Google’s ability to accurately and quickly search for information has political effects closer to home. Recently Republican VP candidate Sarah Palin’s email account was hacked. The hacker did not figure out the password; instead he exploited a flaw present in almost all web-based user accounts. When you sign up for almost anything on the web, you are asked to pick a user name and a password. Most then ask/tell you to fill out a secondary question. The idea behind that is that if you forget your password you can reset it by answering the secondary question. The hacker was able to find out the information to answer the secondary question and reset the password. By many accounts, the hacker located the information through a simple Google search.

If knowledge is power it stands to reason that an entity that indexes and allows free dissemination of that information has substantial power. Google is that entity and few if any rival it in size and scope. Whether Google likes it or not, that position has given it real world geopolitical power which is likely to grow in strength. What will it do with this power? Google’s unofficial motto is “Don’t be evil.” Let’s just hope they stick to that.

Cardozo Jurist Article Link: http://www.cardozojurist.com/index.php/site/comments/google_a_virtual_superpower/

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