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Rafal Rohozinski (left) and Ron Deibert discussed the growing politicization of the internet during the SC Congress Canada data security conference. (Emily Chung/CBC)

The rash of cyberattacks on Sony, Citi Group, the International Monetary Fund and other large corporate and government entities are linked to demographic changes among internet users, cybersecurity researchers say.

In particular, they say, these attacks tend to be the work of a new internet generation with different values than those who created the internet in the first place.

"There is an underlying culture shift happening right now," said Ron Deibert, director of the Canada Centre for Global Security Studies and the Citizen Lab at the the Univeristy of Toronto, while speaking to security experts in Toronto Tuesday.

Deibert called attacks by groups like LulzSec, which took responsibility for attacks on Sony, Nintendo and PBS, and Anonymous, which claimed attacks on MasterCard, PayPal and the Egyptian and Tunisian governments, a "breach-fest."

The cyberattackers are openly taunting law enforcement, said Deibert.

His colleague Rafal Rohozinksi, CEO of the SecDev Group, believes the attacks mark the coming of age of people who grew up with the internet and are now becoming interested in political issues.

"It's this expression of a new form of political agency, which I think is in some ways inevitable," he added in an interview at the SC Congress Canada data security conference.

Rohozinski believes another demographic shift plays a role — a majority of internet users now live outside the U.S. and Europe, in Asia and the Southern hemisphere.

"The norms, the values that they hold, are very different than the technical elite that brought cyberspace into being and wrote its first rules," he said.

Attacks may spur internet crackdown

Rohozinski believes hackers and online activists are in the process of catalyzing significant change on the internet.

Deibert said some of that is positive, such as forcing people to think about the lack of proper security built into the growing infrastructure of cloud computing and social networks.

But he warned that governments sometimes take the wrong approach to internet threats, which range from cyberattacks to opposition political movements that organize online.

"There's a lot of fear right now in the atmosphere," Deibert said.

Many governments are dealing with that by trying to build borders and assert control in what was once a common space by cracking down on anonymity and blocking access to certain parts of the internet, he said.

Rohozinski called that "a huge danger" and warned that laws restricting the internet in that way may be difficult to get rid of once they've taken a foothold in countries with authoritarian governments.