Cyber-security: Good tech,bad tech

Why people need to wise up about what smart criminals are working on

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AT A recent cyber-security summit in Silicon Valley, Barack Obama was asked by an interviewer from Re/code, a technology blog, to give his view of the thorny issue of cyber-snooping by governments. Mr Obama drew on a sporting analogy: “This is more like basketball than [American] football,” he said, “…there’s no clear line between offence and defence.”

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In the corporate world digital defences are being overwhelmed alarmingly often. A string of recent high-profile intrusions by hackers, ranging from the devastating cyber-attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment to the news this week that crafty hackers had pilfered large sums of money from banks in Russia and elsewhere, have propelled cyber-security to the top of boardroom agendas. Marc Goodman’s book was printed before these attacks took place. But it contains plenty of other episodes that highlight how hacking has evolved into a multinational endeavour run by criminal masterminds and spooks.

Mr Goodman, who worked with both Interpol and the FBI before striking out on his own as an expert on digital criminality, worries that the worst is yet to come. As technology rapidly advances, many more things, from pacemakers to cars and power stations, are being connected to the internet and governed by software that is vulnerable to crooks and terrorists.

No sooner is security beefed up than someone attempts to get around it. For instance, firms are experimenting with biometrics, or replacing passwords with things such as fingerprint or facial scans. But crooks are already looking for ways to pinch copies of fingerprints—which, unlike passwords, cannot be changed easily—and to fool facial-recognition systems.

Innovations that generate exponential benefits are also making society more vulnerable. One example is the spread of sophisticated software based on complex algorithms. Such software has enabled companies to automate everything from stock-trading to credit-checking, slashing costs and prices. But digital Al Capones love algorithms too. They use them to target large numbers of people with automated “ransomware” attacks that lock them out of their computers and force them to pay a fee to get hold of their data again.

So how can companies better protect themselves in future? Mr Goodman points out that much software code is being shipped with flaws or “bugs” in it that are “patched” over time. But hackers can exploit these bugs before they are remedied. One solution, he thinks, is to stiffen liability laws so software companies that ship bug-ridden code can be sued more easily. This is worth debating, but a regime that was too draconian would force firms out of business and stifle innovation.

In spite of the many scary scenarios in this excellent and timely book, Mr Goodman is no neo-Luddite. He thinks innovations could ultimately lead to self-healing computer networks that detect hackers and automatically make repairs to shut them out. He rightly urges the private and public sectors to work more closely together, “crowdsourcing” ideas and know-how.

Striking the right balance between ensuring security and satisfying society’s desire for shiny new gadgets and permanent connectivity will not be easy. As people become more dependent on technology, the risks will rise. The best time to start tackling future crimes is now.

Article source: http://www.economist.com/news/books-and-arts/21644121-why-people-need-wise-up-about-what-smart-criminals-are-working-good-techbad-tech?fsrc=rss

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