Do you remember that Treehouse of Horror sketch in The Simpsons where Homer, in one of his characteristic blunders, is responsible for unleashing the Y2K Bug on an unsuspecting world?
We saw shavers coming to life, pacemakers going haywire and traffic signals shooting lasers. Seemed a little far-fetched, no? Well, as time creeps on, people are beginning to realise that such a scenario, wherein every device is connected to one another, isn’t that far off. As they said on South Park: “The Simpsons did it first!”
You’ve no doubt heard about the Internet of Things (IoT); a computer scientist’s wet dream designed to promote better connectivity and co-operation worldwide. It’s the technological utopia that science fiction writers have dreamed of for years. However, if you’ve been paying attention to those same writers you’ll know that the IoT has dark potential, waiting to be abused by nefarious, shadowy hackers.
There are already reports of fridges and smart TVs being roped into bot networks and other mod cons giving away personal secrets. If that sounds a little terrifying then prepare yourself… because it might just get even worse.
A recent report from Europol, The Internet Organised Crime Threat Assessment, warns of yet another technological evolution: The Internet of Everything (IoE). Far from being the title of David Icke’s latest book, the IoE essentially does what it says on the tin. We may see a time when every electronic device, whether that be industrial, domestic or military, will be able to communicate with each other and with people.
Europol’s warning comes in the form of more advanced criminal techniques coming to the fore. This is why we can’t have nice things!
The report surmises that in the event of everything being connected, opportunities to break-in to systems or simply cause any kind of mischief will grow exponentially. Europol have leant heavily on the fear lever for this one, predicting that blackmail and extortion will increase rapidly (with a ransom of Bitcoins!). In one nightmare possibility, they even theorise whether a person’s pacemaker could be hacked into, thus ushering us into the age of remote, digital murder.
The world’s governments can also expect to take a battering in the coming decades. Europol warn that “we can expect to see more attacks on cloud services with the goal to disrupt services for economic or political motives, to steal/access data – including ransomware – or to use the infrastructure for malicious purposes.” In the age of Occupy, the Arab Spring, protests in Hong Kong, a poor economy and the rise of nations such as China and India, things could get a little tough for those at the top table. Whether they deserve it or not is a matter of opinion, of course…
Europol’s doomsday report also states that many industrial systems will face wave after wave of attacks as out-of-date software and generally poor security will be an open door for hackers to run through. Who knows what could happen if somebody took control of a nuclear plant or huge dam?
The IoE may forcefully demand the relaxation of borders and international law. If the potential for crime is this big then genuine and fruitful co-operation will be required. Crime gangs don’t have to live in the same house anymore. Your bank robber could be sat in Tunisia while your getaway driver is doing the business in South Korea.
Of course, the cynic in you may see this as nothing more than a thinly veiled cry for more funding. In a section of the report titled Law Enforcement Considerations, it states, “…extracting, identifying and combining the relevant evidence will routinely become a Big Data problem, requiring law enforcement to have the necessary skills available.” Furthermore, they theorize that “…the increasing number and variety of devices is likely to result in a substantial increase in demand for law enforcement forensics examination and investigation resources.”
The report’s conclusion puts forward the idea that what is needed to prevent the inevitable appearance of the IoE is more regulation, legislation and security. But as a million past articles may have already told you, the genie appears to have escaped from the bottle a long time ago.
Data leaks, password grabs and digital subterfuge have quickly gained their place in the common cultural lexicon. What were once head-spinning sci-fi crimes are now just the norm; mere background noise. Soon countries will wage acts of war through broadband cables. This must be what it’s like being in William Gibson’s head.
So the moral of Europol’s report could be interpreted thus: embrace the tech, just be damned sure to try and stay safe while using it. We may be heading towards a technological golden age, but once again it is human error that might just be our undoing.