Monday, July 27, 2015

Forget Ashley Madison, the Big One's Coming

Computer experts have long warned about a catastrophic cyber-attack in the US, a sort of Web 3.0 version of 9/11 that would wreak enormous damage throughout the country. Like most Americans, I shrugged. With all of the enormous resources the country enjoys, those warnings seemed like the rantings of a digital Chicken Little.

Oddly enough, the revelations of the National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden gave me some false comfort. If the powerful NSA was so good at hacking its own citizens, then surely the agency could prevent criminals, terrorists and foreign enemies from doing the same?

And then there’s Silicon Valley, which I frequently write about. Surely the uber-geeks who run the world’s greatest innovation cluster could code something to smite the evildoers? Well, on behalf on the US, I admit I was terribly wrong. We are so screwed.

I came to this conclusion recently, over a span of seven days. Earlier this month I attended a preview of retail giant Target’s new “Internet of Things” showroom in downtown San Francisco. The company had constructed a mock house intended to show how “smart devices” connected to the internet could seamlessly work together to automate the 21st-century digital home. A car alarm wakes up the baby sleeping in the nursery. A sensor detects the baby’s cries, alerts the parents and automatically triggers the stereo to play soothing music.

It was all very impressive, but I couldn’t help notice an irony: the retailer that in 2013 was subject to a hack that comprised the credit-card data of 100 million consumers now wanted people to entrust their entire homes to the internet. “It’s been a long time coming, but we are just getting started,” a Target executive said.

One week later I found myself at a dinner in a fancy hotel to discuss cybersecurity with the executives of top Silicon Valley firms. Unlike the festive Target event, the mood was decidedly grim. Actually it was downright alarming.

Forget about the Sony and Ashley Madison hacks. Those cyberthefts may cost companies some money and embarrassment, but that’s not what the execs were nervous about. Even the successful breach of Chrysler’s in-car systems, which allowed hackers to take control of a Jeep on the highway and prompted the recall of 1.4 million vehicles, is a mere appetiser compared with what’s coming down the road.

By 2020 the US will be hit with an earthquake of a cyber-attack that will cripple banks, stock exchanges, power plants and communications, an executive from Hewlett-Packard predicted. Companies are nowhere near prepared for it. Neither are the Feds. And yet, instead of mobilising a national defence, we want a toaster that communicates with the washing machine over the internet.

by Thomas Lee, The Guardian |  Read more:
Image: Wired