This essay presents a critical debate on whether the Internet is as dangerous as the physical world. First, the unique dangers posed by the Internet are outlined. This is followed by an examination of some of the major threats to safety that are present in the physical world but not in the virtual world. In the conclusion, the report also looks into how the virtual world might shape in the future.
In cyberspace, no one hears your screams.
(Merkow and Breithaupt, 2000)
Modern society depends on the technology of networked computing more than ever. Whether it is the Internet, the World Wide Web (WWW), or other less well-known networks, people around the world depend on it for multifarious reasons from work and entertainment to essentials of life such as life support in medicine. Networked computing offers easy access, a large degree of anonymity and while this presents us with unique opportunities, it also presents us with unique dangers. In light of the increasing use and even dependence on networked computing, it is pertinent to examine the social, physical and ethical dangers presented by it. This essay critically debates the issue of whether the world of networked computing is as dangerous as the physical world.
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The Dangers on the Internet
Preying by Paedophiles
One of the most disturbing crimes on the Internet today is ‘grooming’. Child grooming is an act where a paedophile will befriend a child, or form an intimate relationship in order to lower a child’s sexual inhibitions. Grooming will initiate from chat rooms designed for children and teenagers and sometimes through emails, where an adult will pose as a teenager, but will often move into using instant messaging services so that the paedophile can talk the victim into sending images and even using a webcam. Research conducted by the Cyberspace Research Unit at the University of Central Lancashire states “another of the frequent topics concerned on-line grooming and in particular, ways in which to avoid detection” (O’Connell, 2003). While this statement gives concern that paedophiles may be able to escape without notice, the report goes on to say, “Throughout each of the stages there are clear and easily identifiable differences in the patterns of behaviour of the individuals.” The stages that are talked about here are known as ‘Friendship forming state’ where the paedophile will just spend time getting to know the child, ‘Relationship forming state’ where the paedophile will start to ask questions about things such as school and home life, ‘Risk assessment stage’ where the paedophile will ask the child questions like who else uses the computer, ‘Exclusivity stage’ where the victim is encouraged to trust the paedophile, and ‘Sexual stage’ where the paedophile will ask the child about previous intimate experiences.
Bullying and Other Negative Electronic Relationships
The virtual world is home to some serious negative and destructive electronic relationships. Cyber bullying, one of the more common ones, is mainly targeted at school pupils in addition to actual physical and verbal bullying. Carnell (2007) points out to evidence that many pupils are being targeted in their own homes, by phone texts, silent calls, on instant messenger, and by abusive websites and forums, some set up with the specific intention of causing humiliation and embarrassment. This shows the severity of cyber bullying in society today.
Griffiths, M.D. (1998) offers the following explanation. The Internet is easy to access from home or work. It is becoming quite affordable and has always offered anonymity. For some people it offers an emotional and mental escape from real life, and this is especially true for individuals who are shy or feel trapped in unhappy relationships. It is also true for individuals who work long hours and have little opportunity for social life. Electronic (or internet) relationships started off when chatrooms were introduced and really boomed since the creation of Instant Messaging. A person can enter a chatroom, use an alias, and can talk to other members without revealing their true identity. However, this raises an important question. If you can do all that without revealing your true identity can you really trust the person you are talking to? Can you be certain that they are being honest with you? Some say that it’s not real and therefore they don’t really worry about it, while others suggest that Internet relationships have a way of tapping into deep feelings and it’s easier to get hurt. Katz and Rice (2002, p286) suggest, “students are meeting and “dating” on the internet…they even have monogamous relationships this way, telling others who might ask that they will not go out with them because they are “dating” someone.” Various researches suggest that it is more common for young people to meet and date people using the Internet and it is becoming more widely accepted as a social meeting point. This however causes concerns about why people are choosing to use the Internet for this reason. Many people feel more comfortable talking about feelings over instant messaging, and this is especially true of shy people or people that feel trapped in an offline relationship.
The Internet also has the notoriety of helping to create unhealthy addictions. The majority of UK bookmakers now run online websites in which people can make exactly the same bets they would in the betting shop, but from the comfort of their own home. The rate at which the online gambling industry is commercialised today is astronomical. From 2005 to 2006 the sector has become the fifth largest advertiser online, jumping to 2.5 billion from 911 million ads in the last year (Schepp, 2002). And this is without the likes of TV ads, magazine ads, and adverts on the radio. This means that the majority of people in society now see online gambling as more acceptable than in recent years. Besides the increased risk of fraud on the Internet, the online gambling also poses the serious problem of an easier way to get addicted. This is because it is relatively easier to sit in front of a computer and gamble than to walk to the nearest betting shop in the cold winter to make a bet. Gambling is however, just one of the addictions people are vulnerable to online. Mitchell (2000) uses the term ‘Internet addiction’ to indicate the spectrum of additions that one is susceptible to on the Internet. He states that although there is some disagreement about whether Internet addiction is a real diagnosis, compulsive Internet use has psychological dangers, and reports such behaviour can result in the users having withdrawal symptoms, depression, social phobia, impulse control disorder, attention deficit disorder, etc.
Viruses and Hacking
In 2000, the number of worldwide email mailboxes was put at 505 million, and this was expected to increase to 1.2 billion in 2005 (Interactive Data Corporation, 2001). Schofield (2001) points out that more than 100 million people use instant messaging (IM) programs on the net, and a growing number among them also use it to transfer files. This number is obviously growing, but this example shows that online communication is becoming a much widely used method of communication. Online communication such as email and instant messaging does not come without problems. Hindocha (2003) states that instant messengers can transfer viruses and other malicious software as they provide the ability to transfer text as well as files. Viruses and malicious software can be transferred to the recipient’s computer without the knowledge of the user. This makes them very dangerous. As the use of online communications becomes more widespread, it is seen as an opportunity for people to gain access to the files on a computer. Hindocha (2003) gives the example of hackers using instant messaging to gain unauthorised access to computers, bypassing desktop and perimeter firewall implementations. This is a real concern for most users, especially as the instant messaging and email client software are ‘trusted’ software; for a home user, their personal information stored on the computer, such as internet banking security details, identifying information that could be used in identity theft, etc. are the risks. However, online communication software such as these are also often used in businesses also, and in this case, extensive records of financial information are vulnerable. Hindocha (2003) goes on to say about instant messaging systems, “finding victims doesn’t require scanning unknown IP addresses, but rather simply selecting from an updated directory of buddy lists.” This throws up serious concerns.
Theft and Fraud
Electronic commerce faces the major threats of theft and fraud. Online theft commonly occurs in the form of identity theft, and less commonly, outright theft, for example by unauthorised access to bank accounts. Camp (2000) points out that while it may seem a big leap to exchange a bill of paper money for machine readable data streams, the value bound to the paper abstraction of wealth is simply a reflection of trust in the method of abstraction that is widely shared and built over centuries. Money on the Internet is simply a different abstraction of wealth, and has similar issues with trust and risk as traditional money, together with the additional dangers posed by the virtual nature of the environment. Because all communication on the Internet is vulnerable to unauthorised access, this means that it is relatively easy to commit fraud. Where legislation is not a deterrent, technology is almost none. Credit card fraud and theft, electronic banking theft, etc. are some of the more common crimes committed online involving money.
What Makes The Internet Safer Than The Physical World?
Safe from Immediate Physical Harm
Perhaps the only upper hand the virtual world has is that its inhabitants are immune to the immediate threat of physical violence; one cannot be randomly mugged online. However, vulnerable people are still susceptible to physical violence and harm, perhaps more to self-harm; there are many websites that promote anorexia, suicide and self-harm, and this can leave a big impact on impressionable minds.
Presence of Strong Safeguards
The main safeguards on the Internet are policing with the accompanying legislation, and technology itself. There are organisations in place to deal with the abusive websites and forums, appropriate legislation to prevent child pornography, paedophilia, theft, fraud and a variety of other online crime. There is also a vast array of technology that can help keep adults and children safe online, from parental control software that can restrict the websites viewed by children, to anti-virus and cryptography software and firewalls that help prevent hacking and viruses and keep data safe.
Staying safe online
It is commonly accepted that the Internet provides us with opportunities that have been hitherto unavailable. Many sing the praises of this so-called information superhighway; however, it is prudent not to be lulled into a false sense of security by the promising opportunities. People should be made aware of the dangers lurking in the Internet, and be given the education and means to take steps to stay safe online. Just as children are taught not to speak to strangers in the real world, they should be taught not to speak to strangers online as well. Education in schools should include education about how to stay safe online; just as children are taught that eating fruit and vegetables are healthy, they should also be taught that excessive online activities can lead to addiction, with various negative consequences. This is because the virtual world is not very different from the physical world in terms of people waiting to take advantage of the weak and vulnerable, and also with respect to dangers such as addiction.
The future of the virtual world
In many ways, the virtual world is a reflection of the real world. After all, the people who inhabit the real world are the same people that also inhabit the virtual world. It follows therefore, that what people do and want to do in the real world, they would try to do in the virtual world too. Where the physical constraints of the virtual world restrict them, they would try to find ways to get around it. The rapid development of technology also gives rise to new means by which people can do things, beneficial or harmful. The development of virtual reality may mean that one day, people in the virtual world may not be immune to immediate physical harm either. However, the technology by itself is neither good nor bad; it is the way the technology is put to use that creates positive and negative consequences for human beings. In the end, it can be said that virtual world is perhaps just as dangerous as the physical world.
Camp, L. J.(2000) Trust and Risk in Internet Commerce Publication: Cambridge, Mass MIT Press.
Carnell, L. (2007) Pupils Internet Safety Online. Bullying Online [online]. Available at: http://www.bullying.co.ukpupils/internet_safety.php (last accessed Aug 2007)
Griffiths, M.D. (2002) The Social Impact of Internet Gambling Social Science Computer Review, Vol. 20, No. 3, 312-320 (2002) SAGE Publications
Griffiths, M. (1998) Does Internet and computer “addiction” exist? Some case study evidence International Conference: 25-27 March 1998, Bristol, UK
IRISS ’98: Conference Papers (Available online at http://www.intute.ac.uk/socialsciences/archive/iriss/papers/paper47.htm – last accessed Aug 2007)
Griffiths, M.D. (2000) Cyber Affairs. Psychology Review, 7, p28.
Hindocha, N. (2003) Threats to Instant Messaging. Symantec Security Response, p3.
Interactive Data Corporation (2001) Email mailboxes to increase to 1.2 billion worldwide by 2005 CNN.com (Available online at http://archives.cnn.com/2001/TECH/internet/09/19/email.usage.idg/ – last accessed Aug 2007)
Katz, J.E. and Rice, R.E. (2002) Social Consequences of Internet Use. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. p286.
Merkow, M. S. and Breithaupt, J. (2000) The Complete Guide to Internet Security New York AMACOM Books
Mitchell, P. (2000) Internet addiction: genuine diagnosis or not? The Lancet,Volume 355,Issue 9204,Pages 632-632
O’Connell, R. (n.d.) A Typology of Child Cyber Sexploitation and Online Grooming Practices. Cyberspace Research Unit UCLAN, p7-9.
Schepp, D. (2002) Internet Gambling Hots Up BBC Online (Available online at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/1834545.stm – last accessed Aug 2007)
Smith, J. and Machin, A.M. (2004) Youth Culture and New Technologies. New Media Technologies, QUT.
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