Maybe we're dating ourselves a bit, but we're feeling digitally nostalgic over an anniversary this year. Twenty years ago, in 1993, the first popular graphic Web browser debuted. Those were simpler days. The Internet was a niche communications technology, something that your geeky cousin or college students used.
Today, more than half of Americans carry a smartphone more powerful than any personal computer back then. Vast troves of knowledge are at their fingertips. It's a new world, one full of delights and dangers.
Foremost among the dangers are cyberattacks that can come from anywhere on the planet. Most originate from a few nations, particularly China and Russia.
Lone-wolf hackers still exist, of course. Look no further than charges filed last month against a former Sonoma State University student accused of stealing risqu?photos of three women who scorned his advances. He spread those images online, a sad reminder that once something is digital, privacy no longer is guaranteed.
Yet those individual cybercriminals are small potatoes. They don't typically launch massive cyber attacks. For example, the New York Times recently reported that up to 100,000 daily attacks from China target University of Wisconsin networks.
Schools and corporations across the country are under siege. It is easy to understand the appeal of such targets. They generate knowledge, new science and new technology. The patents and research that reside in their systems are valuable and in some cases potentially dangerous, as when they deal with national security or biotechnology.
They also store detailed personal data about thousands of students, alumni, faculty, employees and customers. Criminals who can mine the records for birth dates, Social Security numbers and addresses have more than they need to steal identities.
The Sonoma State community knows that risk, too. In 2005, a hacker accessed personal information about more than 61,000 students and alumni.
The nightmare scenario is foreign hackers who launch a coordinated attack that brings down the U.S. energy grid or the Internet, but there would be little criminal profit in crashing the world's biggest economy. America must guard against such attacks, but the mundane, daily industrial espionage is equally important to fight.
University and corporate security specialists do what they can, but attackers' tactics evolve. Each new security hole discovered gives them a fresh opportunity. Protecting vulnerable systems is something no one can afford to skimp on.