Divisions between online and physical worlds blur in 2010 | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 29.12.2010
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Divisions between online and physical worlds blur in 2010

The virtual world continued to revolutionize reality in 2010 as the Internet solidified its position as a platform for warfare, personal privacy and transparency. DW examines how online events altered the real world.

Network cables plugged into a server

Connections between the online and real worlds are increasing

While military experts have been dealing with the issue of cyber-warfare for years, its public profile grew in 2010 as the United States established a "Cyber Command" in May and the NATO alliance approved a new strategy that includes developing means of warding off cyber-attacks.

"We did realize that cyber is one of the major, new issues to be dealt with," said former US Secretary of State Madeline Albright, who played a leading role in developing NATO's new overall strategy.

Stuxnet, a sophisticated computer virus designed to infect industrial control systems used in power plants, refineries and chemical production facilities, was found in September. Though its creators remain unknown, experts believe the program was written by programmers aiming to cripple Iran's uranium enrichment capabilities.

The program proved nations and other groups were actively working on covert projects that would derail other countries' industrial complex, according to Stefan Ritter of the German Federal Office for Information Security.

"Now we had proof," he told Deutsche Welle. "It wasn't a fictional threat thought up by a couple of experts in a backroom anymore. It's a real threat that's extremely large and extremely sophisticated."

WikiLeaks published classified material

The whistle-blower website WikiLeaks, however, showed that sophisticated technology can also be harnessed to take information out of the backroom and put it in a public forum.

A magnifying glass focuses on the words Afghan War Diary, which appears on a monitor showing wikileaks.org

Already operational, WikiLeaks became well-known after releasing the Afghan files

The site first published some 80,000 classified documents relating to the US war in Afghanistan then 400,000 files concerning the war in Iraq.

"The battlefield consequences of the release of these documents are potentially severe and dangerous for our troops, our allies and our Afghan partners and may well damage our relationships and reputation in that key part of the world," US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said after the Afghanistan files were published.

In November, WikiLeaks began the gradual publication of 250,000 diplomatic cables sent to Washington from US embassies. The frank assessments US officials sent to the State Department brought to light the discrepancy between what world leaders sometimes say and do when it comes to international politics.

WikiLeaks led to another online confrontation as an informal group of its proponents staged denial of service attacks on companies that removed Wikileaks.org material from their servers and stopped accepting donations and discontinued financial services for the organization.

Google Street View launches in Germany

Personal privacy was the largest tech topic in Germany in 2010. Much media attention focused on opposition to Google Street View, an expansion of the US company's map service that shows a street-level view of cities around the world.

Illustration of a backlight photographer and a woman holding up both hands, making a stop gesture, in front of a Google logo

Not everyone in Germany was happy to have pictures of their homes appear on the Internet

Privacy advocates accused Google of infringing on individuals' privacy and demanded a way for Germans to opt out of the service before it went online, which some 200,000 people did before images of 20 German cities were made available in November.

The German government also was in the spotlight after the country's highest court overturned a 2008 law that required telecommunications companies to save phone and Internet connection data for six months in case authorities required it for a criminal investigation.

"Saving connection information without cause evokes a diffuse and threatening feeling of being observation that impairs the unprejudiced perception of basic rights in many areas," said Hans-Juergen Papier, the president of the Constitutional Court at the time of the March verdict.

Proving that a change in calendar won't mean a change in points of view, Joerg Ziercke, the head of Germany's Federal Criminal Police Agency, called on lawmakers to find a way of sidestepping the court's decision and obliging companies to store connection data.

"It is important for us to be able to access this information under certain circumstances," he said. "That's why we need a new law that removes the barriers in the fight against terrorism and organized crime."

Authors: Matthias von Hein, Sean Sinico

Editor: Cyrus Farivar

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