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21 August 2018

We Must Be Wary of Tech that Could Turn on Us

We must be wary of tech that could turn on us
by Clare Foges, thetimes.co.uk, 20 August 2018

Rather than simply accepting all new technology, we should be asking whether some of it is really necessary

Techsperts: the boffins at GCHQ know
that with every advance comes risk. Alamy
Caesar’s Palace, Las Vegas: once home to the boozing, carousing Rat Pack; now frequented by the rather stranger Hack Pack. Last week the hotel hosted DefCon, the world’s top hacking convention, where in one room techies who failed to crack various challenges had their laptops sledge-hammered by a man dressed as a hot-dog. Elsewhere, mighty brains were applied to exercises with wider implications. A group of delegates took just minutes to hack the voting machines used in 18 US states. One whizz demonstrated how to infiltrate police body cameras, download footage, edit a crime away and upload it again seamlessly. Meanwhile, a group of Chinese hackers had worked out how to hijack Amazon’s “smart speaker”, Echo, turning it into a surveillance device to eavesdrop on users.

Wherever there is connected technology, there are clever people trying — and often succeeding — to break in and manipulate it. Outside places like DefCon, many do so with intent to steal, scare, sabotage or kill. Yet while malign hackers become ever more ingenious, we become ever more complacent about opening up our lives, our homes, our streets and cities to technology that can be turned against us. Carelessly, and with very little debate, we are allowing connected technology to penetrate deeper into our physical environment — and we may come to regret it.

Almost a quarter of UK households now have a smart TV, remote-controlled heating system or some other networked device. One in ten of us owns a smart speaker. In our skies, the number of drones buzzing overhead looks set to soar. Earlier this year the National Air Traffic Control Service announced it was scrapping the rule that the machines cannot be flown beyond the line of sight, clearing the path for Amazon-style delivery drones in the next year or two. On our motorways, driverless lorries are soon to be trialled, while the chancellor has said his aim is to see “fully driverless cars” in use by 2021.

Meanwhile the buzz-phrase “smart cities” continues to float around Whitehall, the rather amorphous ambition to connect a city’s energy, transport, water and waste systems with sensors and smart technology, so that they work together like cogs in a Swiss watch. We are far from this now, but the ambition is live.

So, while GCHQ relentlessly parries the bots and malware that threaten us, we are busily expanding what techies call our “attack surface area”. This opens the door not only to more online attacks on our data and financial information, but to attacks that could cause chaos and danger in “real life”. Read all about it: the fire in a German steel mill caused by the infiltration of its computers; the hackers who managed to cut a car’s transmission while it travelled at speed miles away; the recent assassination attempt on Venezuela’s President Maduro, in which a drone carrying military explosive flew through a built-up city towards its target.

Smart cities have proved a playground for hackers, too. Last year, in Dallas, one set off ear-splitting emergency sirens at night for 90 minutes. In Atlanta, years of footage captured by police was lost; in Indiana, a hospital was left without access to patient histories; and in Colorado, 2,000 computers in the state’s transport department had to be shut down. Behind all this was an anonymous group of hackers dubbed SamSam, who make about $330,000 a month by holding smart cities to ransom.

Hacking is motivated not only by money or a desire to spread terror, but by power. As Robert Oppenheimer watched the nuclear bomb he had helped to invent take a chunk out of the New Mexico desert he famously said: “I am become death, destroyer of worlds . . .” The teenage hacker might feel an approximate surge of power on seeing their work cause chaos in a far-off city. Now that wannabe hackers can buy a starter kit of hacking tools on the dark web for about £100, we can expect much more of this from bored young men.

To all this you may respond with a shrug; it’s terrible, but what can we do? Perhaps we must simply resign ourselves to the new reality: an endless cat and mouse game between law enforcement and the hackers.

There is another response, though. Radical as it may sound, we — consumers and governments — could choose to have less of this connected technology in our lives. Not stubbornly preserving ourselves in the aspic of 2018, but being more discriminating about which innovations we wish to welcome into our lives; which are necessary; which are worth the risk they may bring.

We have come to believe that every new technology equals progress. When the Silicon Valley CEO prowls a product launch stage and says: “Hey! Wouldn’t it be neat if your toothbrush could talk to your car to get the heaters going on a winter morning?” many think he has a point. Consumers are seduced by the promise of perfect convenience; governments are keen to appear forward-looking and zeitgeisty; and so collectively we are pretty supine about the relentless penetration of technology into our lives.

Of course, many technological advances are to be embraced whether they become Trojan horses for hacks or not. Ten years after pacemakers were first hacked, DefCon delegates found they were still vulnerable to remote tampering, but clearly the benefits of these life-saving devices outweigh the risk. Can we say the same thing for various smart home devices or delivery drones? Is it necessary to control everything in our home via an app? Do we need that back scratcher delivered by Amazon in a matter of hours? Is it worth the risk of thousands of drones being hacked and turned into weapons of terror?

When the price that we may pay for having wall-to-wall technology in our lives is potential chaos, regular attacks, threats to our safety, privacy and finances, we need to know that each new invention is truly worthwhile. To be a tech-sceptic is not turning your back on the future; it is asking that we shape it more sensibly. Whether we are running governments or buying gadgets, we should all be more discerning about where we allow technology to spread, if the gains are relatively minor. Is a little extra convenience worth it considering the security risks of a more connected world? It may seem blasphemous to say it in the age of tech worship, but not all technology equals progress, and not all technology is necessary.



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