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  3. My network is my island; the internet is the sea

My network is my island; the internet is the sea

There’s an island in the southwest of the Netherlands called Walcheren, in a province called Zeeland (the place New Zealand was named after). I grew up there and loved it, because of the sharp contrast between summer (sun, beaches & parties) and winter (cold, dreary and boring). I also made some of my best friends there.

Living below sea level

As many Dutchmen do, we have lived below sea level. We have been protected by dikes to keep the water out and pumps to keep our feet dry. Island dwellers live in a combination of respect and awe for the water. They know the water brings life, but it also brings danger. In 1953, in a freak combination of spring tide and a storm coming from exactly the wrong direction, dikes were breached, and disaster struck, resulting in nearly 2000 lives lost, and much more lost cattle and properties (North Sea flood of 1953 – Wikipedia). Today, some grandmas and grandpas still share the tales of sitting on their roof in the freezing February cold, waiting for help to come.

One of the breaches

Vulnerabilities in dikes were used a few years before that in WW2. The allies bombed dikes in October 1944 to trap invaders by flooding the island. So, the Islanders knew threats not only originating from Force Majeure but also from friendly actors.

Adversity to opportunity

The Dutch managed to turn adversity into opportunity as we’re now the world leader in keeping the land dry. We protected ourselves with the Delta works. We learned not to fight the water but to live with the water. The world is starting to take notice. Just look at the palm islands in Dubai if you want to see Dutch progress in protecting against the sea while leveraging its benefits.

Today I am on a pier in Gothenburg, looking at the stormy waves outside as we discuss trends in cybercrime. I love the sea. A friend told me, “You can take the man out of Zeeland, but you can’t take Zeeland out of the man.” It reminds me that the internet is the only thing approaching the sea in respect of the love, awe, and respect I feel for it.

The internet before firewalls

I sailed the Internet for the first time using my 14k4 modem, frustrating my roommates by keeping the line busy. I used free university dial back facilities if I could use the gopher protocol and played MUD’s. I used Trumpet Winsock for connectivity, as the world was 16 bits back then. Floppies were floppy, firewalls were packet filters, and I am not ashamed to say I didn’t use them, as no one did. It was like being in the ocean in a rowing boat, but the sea was calm, there was a refreshing breeze, and the opportunities were endless. The threats came much later.

The internet does not care for you

Like the sea, the internet is impartial, and it doesn’t care for you nor the bad guys. It doesn’t care about anything. It just is. It is a wonderful playground where we have adventures and build a business from it. It is easy to get lost in or even drown, so we build and protect our perimeters against the bad stuff coming from it. Some of us fight to keep the internet clean. Sometimes waves come crashing in from exactly the wrong direction. Some go out there with too little understanding of the risks and the threats. Perimeters become breached. Bad people use the internet, and we get upset. We increase our protection, and we follow threat evolution.

On an exceptionally stormy day like today, on this pier, I get a bit philosophical about this. Also, working on cyber issues with our customers makes me feel privileged, as we are working to enable the benefits of the internet, which deserves our awe and respect, no matter what risks might be out there. To me, it’s worth it, and every incident provides a chance to turn adversity into opportunity.

I think the elders in Walcheren would understand.

Additional resources you may like:

The Dutch solution to rising seas – New York Times