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Written by: Austin Bowie
Written on: April 12th, 2016
Tags: computer science, security & defense, communication
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About the Author
Austin Bowie is a student at the University of Southern California.
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Volume XVIII Issue I > Are You a Human? Exploring What Web Security Means to You
The internet is a ubiquitous part of everyday life with people using it for work, play, and everything in-between. But for every helpful use of modern computers' superior speed and performance, there is also a way for malicious hackers to counteract traditional security measures. This becomes a considerable issue as the internet expands in terms of users and devices, providing unprecedented access to the world around us on both sides of the issue. As a result, computer scientists have begun to develop security technology that imitates human intuition in order to protect its users more effectively.

Introduction

Web security is a widespread topic of concern for businesses and individuals alike. In 2014 alone, more than 500 million financial records were accessed illegally [1], and, with stories like Edward Snowden's, in which he released upwards of 1.7 million documents filled with information gathered by the NSA about the general public [2], security is garnering much more attention. The web has numerous security measures that even the most casual of users have likely seen, and these measures are not quite as complicated as they may seem. However, for many users, the often esoteric and highly technical discussion of this matter makes a fundamental understanding unattainable, making it difficult to prevent exploits of these security measures.

What are computers even good for?

Unsurprisingly, computers are very good at doing tasks that take in specific user inputs, but they are unable to use intuition in order to aid human decision-making. If people want to use their phones, which are basically just small computers, as calculators, they will return the right answer every time. If they ask Siri where to go to get the little black things that screw onto valve of bike tires, though, they are probably out of luck. However, a fellow human being would likely be much better at understanding what is being asked, but not as accurate with calculations. There is a very good reason for this, and it lies at the heart of what it means to be human and what it means to be a computer.
Human brains function in “parallel” while computers function in “series”[6]. In short, humans can process a lot of information at the same time. For instance, in each human eye, millions of little rods and cones each pick up a little bit of light and send it back to your brain, which processes it all at once to create an image of what you see in front of you. At the center of a computer, however, is not a brain but a processor. A processor can only do one thing at a time. To make up for this, however, it moves extremely fast, performing upwards of 4 billion calculations per second. To illustrate, if every calculation took a second, it would take 126 years for the processor to do what it currently does in 1 "real" second. This makes adding 1 billion numbers incredibly quick. However, in order to bring the image seen on a screen, it has to go to each pixel individually and tell it what color to render. For a 1080p screen, that's over 2 million pixels that the computer has to visit individually and set. Compare that to the human brain, which can do the same task all at once. In short, humans are good at using intuition, understanding language, and identifying very complex patterns, while computers can move extremely quickly and extremely precisely. Understanding that overarching difference, the conversation about security becomes much more interesting.