Not so long ago, the internet often felt like a fully detached realm of ephemeral fun. Today, we wake up to tweets from a president that seem intended to goad a rogue state into nuclear war. Hackers launch ransomware worms that tear across the globe in a matter of hours, paralyzing massive multinational infrastructure companies. And organized hatred online reaches out directly into the physical world, embodied in terrorist violence from the streets of New York City to Istanbul to Egypt to Charlottesville.
More than ever, the internet has shown that its dangers aren’t somehow unhooked from real world. The internet is the real world, for better and, in multiplying, unexpected ways, for worse. With that in mind, these are the dangerous characters we’ve been watching online in 2017.
For the third year in a row, Trump tops our list of world’s most dangerous online personas. In just the most recent months of his first year as president, he’s used his Twitter to fan hatred, spreading fake anti-Muslim videos from a discredited rightwing British group. He has undermined his own State Department’s diplomatic efforts to prevent nuclear war by taunting and threatening North Korea. And he has systematically sought to erode Americans’ trust in the media. When Americans can’t agree on basic truths like the role of Russia in meddling with the US election, and Libyan or Burmese officials discount reports of slavery and ethnic cleansing in their countries as “fake news,” credit Trump’s misinformation offensive. Trump remains a solipsistic bully and a temperamental, pathological and systematic liar—one who’s able to issue his threats, insults, and lies directly to millions of people from the smartphone in his pocket.
If you’ve heard of Federal Communications Commission chair Ajit Pai, chances are it’s because he led the charge to gut the agency’s net neutrality protections. For more than a decade, FCC chairs from both parties sought to ban broadband providers from blocking or otherwise discriminating against lawful content online. But thanks to Pai, the likes of Comcast and Verizon will soon be free to pick winners and losers online.
Even if the courts shoot down Pai’s plan, he’ll still be in charge of the agency responsible for enforcing those protections, something he’s shown little interest in doing so far. But that’s not the only reason he made our list. Pai is also working to dismantle a federal program that would have subsidized internet access for low-income Americans, may soon allow DSL providers to discontinue service in rural areas without having to provide replacement services, and stood idly by as bots undermined the FCC’s public comment system.
In short, his policies could lead to fewer people having internet access, fewer options for those who had afford it, and a decline in digital participation in government.
Extremist Burmese monk Ashin Wirathu has spouted hate in his sermons for years against Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority group. And after the government banned him from making public speeches, he has reached out to his followers via Facebook instead, spreading misinformation and propaganda that paints the Rohingya as foreign terrorists who must be expelled from the country. That hate speech has helped to fuel a wave of massacres, beatings, rape, and arson against thousands of Rohingya in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, and pushed hundreds of thousands of Rohingya into squalid makeshift refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh. As a result, the UN has officially accused Myanmar’s military of ethnic cleansing. Wirathu, sometimes called the “Buddhist Bin Laden,” claimed in June that his posts on Facebook were censored and that he’d been temporarily banned. But he’s since reappeared on the site, and continued to post content supporting his extremist views.
Since it first came into the global spotlight in 2014, ISIS has been synonymous with nihilistic violence. But more than ever before, its most influential presence is digital. As the group has been stripped of physical territory—including its strongholds in Mosul, Iraq and Raqqa, Syria—it has nonetheless continued to pull in converts through its social media seduction, convincing them to kill themselves and many others. From January’s attack in an Istanbul nightclub, to the killing of eight cyclists in New York by a flat-bed truck, to the massacre of more than 300 Egyptians last month, ISIS’s handiwork—whether through direct contact with attackers or the creation of propaganda that motivated them—has become no less bloody, even as the actual “state” from which it takes its name has dissipated.
Since the summer of 2016, the mysterious group calling itself the Shadow Brokers has trolled and tortured the National Security Agency, touting a shocking cache of secret NSA hacking tools that it somehow obtained, and has since been leaking piecemeal into the open internet. But it was only in April of this year that the worst happened: One Shadow Brokers release included the powerful NSA programs EternalBlue and EternalRomance, both of which used flaws in a Microsoft protocol known as Server Message Block to allow hackers to compromise virtually any Windows machine that wasn’t updated with a patch that Microsoft rushed out ahead of the leak.
The exploits were integrated into attacks ranging from annoying cryptocurrency miners to targeted hotel Wi-Fi hacking to mass-scale ransomware worms including WannaCry, NotPetya, and BadRabbit, which together caused enormous damage to companies, government agencies, and individuals around the globe. Those attacks raised new questions about the safekeeping of the NSA’s hacking arsenal. And ever since the Shadow Brokers have only continued to revel in the chaos they’ve caused.
Rod Rosenstein first came into the public eye when he signed a letter to President Trump recommending James Comey be fired from his position as FBI director. But as scandalous as that decision was, Rosenstein’s more lasting and tech-focused threat has been his repeated calls for so-called “responsible encryption.” That newly coined euphemism means encryption that the government can decrypt, or compel tech firms to decrypt on its behalf.
The underlying premise has been discredited by practically everyone who knows anything about encryption and computer security, repeatedly, for the last 25 years. As those security experts detailed vocally in response to the FBI’s legal demand that Apple rewrite its own operating system to crack the iPhone of San Bernadino killer Syed Rizwan Farook, putting that sort of government backdoor into encryption would expose countless devices to hackers. Tech companies would also find themselves subject to foreign powers making similar demands.
But after a locked iPhone was recovered from Texas mass shooter Devin Patrick Kelley, Rosenstein said in a speech that unbreakable encryption “costs lives.” Rosenstein has made he clear he’d like to fight the crypto wars yet again. “I want our prosecutors to know that, if there’s a case where they believe they have an appropriate need for information, and there is a legal avenue to get it, they should not be reluctant to pursue it,” Rosenstein told Politico in early November.
For the last three years, a group of hackers known as Sandworm, believed to be based in Russia, have waged cyberwar in Ukraine. They’ve hacked government agencies, businesses, and in two climactic attacks, turned off the power to hundreds of thousands of people in the only confirmed hacker blackouts in history.
This year, the full extent of their skills became clearer in June with the revelation of a piece of malware the group used in the second of those two attacks known as Industroyer or Crash Override. That automated and highly adaptable power-killing tool represents only the second piece of malicious code in history, after Stuxnet, designed specifically to disrupt physical equipment. Almost immediately after that discovery, security analysts linked Sandworm with the NotPetya malware that rippled through Ukraine and then across the world, causing nine-figure damages to companies as major as Maersk, Merck, and FedEx.
Sandworm wasn’t the only group that graduated from targeted attacks to mass mayhem in 2017. The hacker team known as Lazarus, which security researchers believe works on behalf of the North Korean government, did as well. In recent years Lazarus has destroyed hundreds of computers at Sony, and stolen tens of millions of dollars from banks in Bangladesh, Poland, and Vietnam, making it the world’s most active profit-driven, state-sponsored cybercriminal organization.
But this year, Lazarus was linked to what was likely its most damaging attack yet: WannaCry ransomware worm. Only a few amateur mistakes the hackers made, including a “kill-switch” built into the malware, stopped it before it reached the US. But the first-of-its-kind attack should be read as a warning: Lazarus will return.
Trump’s presidency has emboldened American white supremacists, so-called “white nationalists,” and full-blown Nazis to a level they haven’t enjoyed in decades. The Daily Stormer, the paper of record for those despicable groups, has come to represent how those racists have both exploited and tested the limits of the internet’s free speech principles. And Andrew Anglin, the site’s creator, is the human embodiment of the web’s worst racist, misogynist, and anti-semitic streak. Anglin’s Holocaust denial and calls for separation of races may look like mere trolling. But after Unite the Right’s racist rally in Charlottesville in August that ended in the death of a counter-protestor, the very real danger of that neo-nazism became clear. And despite being kicked off numerous domain registrars and even abandoned by its DDOS protection firm Cloudflare, the site has managed to hold onto a perch online and keep spewing its fascist vitriol.
Cody Wilson, the founder of the gun access group Defense Distributed, first entered WIRED’s list of the most dangerous people for his creation of DIY firearm blueprints, which allowed any one to 3-D print their own firearm components or even entire guns at home. He has since upgraded those techniques, now selling a desktop computer-controlled milling machine that lets anyone carve gun components out of metal.
This year, he announced that his so-called Ghost Gunner machine can now manufacture untraceable metal handguns like Glocks and Colt 45s, a far more concealable weapon than the untraceable AR-15s that he’d previously touted. The danger of those homemade guns became even more clear this year, after 44-year-old mentally disturbed man Kevin Neal used homemade “ghost guns” to kill five people in Northern California.
But not content with merely advancing that gun-control firestorm, Wilson has also launched another, even more controversial project called Hatreon, a kind of crowdfunded donation platform for racists, extremists, and others banned from sites like Kickstarter and Patreon. It currently funnels thousands of dollars a month to figures like Andrew Anglin and neo-nazi Richard Spencer.