Wired But Not Secured

The uses and abuses of technology

In a Simpsons episode entitled “Specs and the City”, the evil owner of Springfield’s nuclear power plant Mr Burns has a surprise for his employees. He presents them with a pair of “Oogle Goggles”, small computers, that are worn like spectacles. Homer and his colleagues use the glasses to see new information about the people and things around them. Meanwhile, Mr Burns sits in his office and secretly accesses the glasses to spy on his employees and to find out whether they’re stealing any office supplies. With a nod to its non-fictional equivalent Google Glass, this episode shows how any technology we use can simultaneously be used and abused by others.

In Future Crimes Marc Goodman provides 18 well-researched and densely filled chapters to show that “we have wired the world, but we’ve failed to secure it”. Drawing on his career in law enforcement, first as a police officer, then a senior adviser to Interpol and the FBI, Goodman explains that organised crime groups were early adopters of technology. Criminals began to embrace the digital world long before the police, and they have outpaced the authorities ever since. By shedding light on the very latest in criminal and terrorist uses of technology, Goodman hopes to kick off a debate among the policing and national security community.

More than that, he wants to arm members of the general public with the facts they need to protect themselves. “Each day, we plug more and more of our daily lives into the global information grid,” writes Goodman “without pausing to ask what it all means.”

The technological tools and gadgets we routinely use with little self-reflection may come back to bite us. Goodman explains how a mobile phone camera can be turned on remotely without the knowledge of its owner. Baby monitors, which allow parents to watch their children over the internet, are also incredibly easy to crack. So are internet-connected televisions. “As you sit there watching your smart TV, it may be watching you right back,” writes Goodman. It seems as if Orwell’s omniscient telescreens are now available in a shop near you. More than that, in 2014 hackers created a lightbulb, known as “Conversnitch”, that can eavesdrop on conversations and tweet them live. It’s not only walls that have ears in this digital age.

Goodman begins with an outline of crimes present and crimes past, to show how they may develop in the future. He covers everything from cyber bullying to the crypto-currency Bitcoin. He recounts recent cyber attacks on companies, such as Target and Sony. Most businesses are hacked on a regular basis but are not aware of it. In cases when they find out, companies often try to hide the loss of their data from customers. Most companies’ terms and conditions stipulate that they cannot vouch for their product always to be secure and error-free. But most people do not read the terms and conditions of websites they sign up with. Facebook’s privacy policy is more than twice as long as the US Constitution. Paypal’s privacy policy is even longer, at 36,275 words; Hamlet has 30,066.

“What most people do not understand,” writes Goodman, “is that any data collected will invariably leak.” As a positive response to these developments, he cites the EU Data Protection Directive, which enshrines privacy as a fundamental right of EU citizens. It limits what data companies can story about us and how long they can keep it before it must be deleted.

Individuals, companies and states need to develop strategies against online threats. States need to consider the fact that electricity, gas pipelines, air traffic control, the stock market, drinking water facilities, streetlights, hospitals and sanitation systems all depend on technology and the internet. Goodman presents an exhaustive array of past crimes on urban infrastructures. In 2007, nearly three million people north of Rio de Janeiro were stuck in the dark because the local electricity provider failed to meet the extortion demands of cyber attackers. In 2008, four trains were derailed in Lodz because a 14-year-old Polish computer whiz managed to create a remote transmitter capable of controlling the city’s rail system. As technology develops, so will opportunities to subvert its tools.

Future crimes will extend to include human bodies. Goodman writes that we increasingly wear and embed intelligent devices into our bodies. Over 100 million “wearables” were sold globally in 2014 and this number is expected to grow to 485 million units by 2018. These devices are worn on the body and are used to track heart rates, calories burnt, steps walked, and hours slept. Bluetooth technology and mobile phone apps allow users to control and adjust their settings. But Bluetooth has easily been subverted by hackers in the past. More than that, some implantable medical devices, such as hearing aids, pace-makers, bionic limbs, are now connected to the internet. Goodman’s chapter on the vulnerabilities of these tools will make your hair stand on edge.

Goodman proposes broader digital education, research centres and prices to encourage security innovation. By 2025, the internet will become “like electricity” according to a Pew Research report. It will be less visible and yet more deeply embedded in people’s lives. Goodman’s contribution is to show the many ways in which electricity can strike individuals, companies and states. But the switches of technology are still flipped by human beings, and societies can still develop better policies on privacy and data protection.

In January Google announced that it will be ending the sales of Google Glass in its present form. The digital glasses, which can be used for audio or visual recording, have sparked privacy and safety concerns—bars, restaurants and cinemas have banned them on their premises. Mr Burns has met some resistance, and the debate has begun. 

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