Bioweapons and climate hacking – is this the future of crime?

  • The dangers of living in a smart city
  • Healthcare’s huge cybersecurity problem
  • Genetic editing – a horror scenario waiting to unfold?
  • Economic crimes in a digital age
  • The growing threat of high-tech warfare
  • Could a rogue nation hack the climate?
  • Does national security outweigh the right to privacy?
  • The future of law enforcement

There is no denying that our lives are much easier and more convenient than they ever used to be. And we have technology to thank for that. However, as is often the case, all this convenience and comfort does come at a price. While technological progress can definitely take us very far and make some of our wildest fantasies come true, it also presents criminals with new attack vectors that could be used to compromise our security. Who would have thought, for instance, that drones and 4D printers would be used for criminal purposes? And could we have guessed that hacking hospitals and medical devices would become a business model for today’s hackers? And what is the likelihood of someone being able to print the successor to the coronavirus? Criminals have gotten increasingly tech-savvy over the years and they have been quick to exploit every vulnerability that arises, heralding a future of crime we may not be fully prepared for.

The dangers of living in a smart city

Life in a connected city certainly offers numerous benefits. We’ve gotten so used to the IoT that we can’t even imagine our lives without it anymore. This increased reliance on technology is, however, not without its dangers. Did you know that each smart device you bring into your home present a potential point of entry for a dedicated hacker? And did you know that criminals regularly launch sophisticated, coordinated cyber-attacks on our critical infrastructure, targeting power grids, water treatment systems, and transportation networks? Even hospitals have become regular targets, putting countless lives in danger. A recent report published by Cybersecurity Ventures estimates that cybercrime will cost the world $6 trillion annually by 2021.

In May 2019, for instance, unidentified hackers used a new strain of ransomware called RobinHood to breach the city of Baltimore’s servers, locking away the digital content stored on those servers and practically paralysing many of the online aspects of running the city. Among other things, citizens were unable to make online payments to city departments, government email was inaccessible, and real estate transactions couldn’t be processed. To restore access to the servers, the hackers demanded a payment of 13 bitcoins, which is close to $100,000. However, Baltimore City Mayor Jack Young refused to pay the ransom and instead hired a team of cybersecurity experts to try to bring the services back online. Even the FBI and Secret Service got involved. It took several weeks for the experts to restore some of the services and it may take months for the system to become fully operational again. Baltimore’s budget office estimates that the attack will end up costing the city $18.2 million due to lost or delayed revenue and direct costs to restore the system.

Healthcare’s huge cybersecurity problem

Medical devices have also become increasingly connected in recent years, allowing medical staff to administer treatment and access patients’ vital stats remotely. While this is undoubtedly convenient and efficient, did you wonder what could happen if a malicious actor were to obtain access to these systems? Are you aware that we now have technology that allows scientists to read our thoughts and even plant new ones? The idea of our brains, our neurological systems, and even our DNA getting hacked doesn’t sound so impossible now, does it? And while these medical breakthroughs are generally designed to restore or enhance human abilities, there are some serious concerns about the damage they could cause if they fall into the wrong hands.

Electronic health records, digital healthcare applications, and home monitoring systems are just some of the recent innovations that are fuelling the transformation of the healthcare sector. Even medical equipment, such as CT and MRI scanners, ultrasounds, and electrocardiograms, is becoming increasingly connected to the internet. A recent report published by Deloitte predicts that the global internet of medical things (IoMT) market will reach a value of $158 billion by 2022. This development has been rather good for patients, allowing them to take a more active role in their own health and significantly improving patient outcomes. However, there is one major drawback to increased connectivity. IoT devices are notorious for their security issues, making healthcare institutions a very enticing target for hackers. We have witnessed a growing number of cyber attacks on hospitals in recent years, ranging from stealing patient data and hijacking drug infusion devices to mining cryptocurrency and more serious attacks, causing entire hospitals to be shut down.

In November 2019, the University Hospital Centre (CHU) in Rouen, France was the victim of a large-scale ransomware attack that rendered all of its computers unusable. Rather than paying the ransom, the hospital staff turned to pen and paper, handling appointments by phone and issuing written prescriptions and reports. While this caused long delays in care, none of the patients were endangered and no medical or personal data had gone missing. It does however highlight the severity of the problem facing hospitals today. It’s going to take extensive collaboration between everyone involved – including doctors, nurses, IT professionals, and manufacturers – to adequately address cybersecurity issues in healthcare. “We don’t want to turn clinicians into hackers,” says Christian Dameff, cybersecurity researcher and informatics fellow at the University of California San Diego Health. “But is it reasonable to have an hour or two or more of cybersecurity training and patient safety as a part of medical school?”

Genetic editing – a horror scenario waiting to unfold?

Over the years, science has developed in such a way that we’ve now entered into an era in which we may soon be able to rewrite the gene pool of future generations of plants, insects, and even humans. You might ask yourself, why would anyone do this? For one, it would enable us to eradicate genetic diseases or create healthier, stronger crops. However, in the wrong hands, it could also cause genetic hell to break loose. Criminals could use it to genetically engineer virus-carrying insects that would target crops and threaten the global food supply. The most nightmarish scenario would surely be human cloning. Animal cloning was achieved a long time ago and it’s only a matter of time before these techniques are applied to humans as well.

In 2016, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) launched a $45-million program dubbed Insect Allies, which aims to alter the chromosomes of crops using genetically modified viruses. Described by the agency as a way to improve crop security and crop growth, the program will use insects like aphids, leafhoppers, and whiteflies to deliver the virus to plants, altering which genes they express and making them resistant to disease or drought. However, an international team of scientists has voiced concerns that the technology could potentially be used as a biological weapon. “The program is primarily a bad idea because obvious simplifications of the work plan with already-existing technology can generate predictable and fast-acting weapons, along with their means of delivery, capable of threatening virtually any crop species,” the scientists warn.

Economic crimes in a digital age

Digital technologies and cryptocurrencies have had a transformative impact on the world of finance, forcing traditional financial services providers to adopt new business models in order to meet customer expectations and remain competitive. These developments, however, have also opened up new opportunities for hackers, bringing forth a new age of financial crime. Rather than using guns and masks to rob banks, criminals are increasingly turning to financial technologies like payment apps, e-wallets, digital currencies, and anonymous blockchain transactions to launder money, while artificial intelligence (AI) allows them to perform sophisticated phishing attacks, fool biometric scanners with fake fingerprints, and produce audio and video deepfakes to wage disinformation and commit extortion. You thought that was something that was only possible in movies? Think again.

Renowned cybersecurity journalist Brian Krebs recently revealed that hackers are increasingly exploiting third-party financial aggregation services like Mint, Plaid, and Yodlee to steal people’s hard-earned money. And it’s frighteningly easy to do. According to Krebs, hackers are constantly prowling online banking sites looking for customer accounts that are protected with weak or common passwords and then using backdoors built into the banks’ cybersecurity to take control of those accounts. This problem affects even banks that use multi-factor authentication (MFA), as they often allow these aggregators to bypass this protection. Using login credentials obtained from other hacked sites, hackers will try to gain access to online banking sites as well. Once inside, they will launch spear phishing attacks or perform unauthorized SIM swaps to obtain the second authentication factor. From there, they can simply link that account to another account that belongs to the hacker and transfer all of the money.

The growing threat of high-tech warfare

The rapid pace of development of new technologies has given rise to new types of crimes as well, some of which are so sophisticated and destructive that they can even compromise military and national security, leaving entire countries defenceless. We have entered the age of high-tech warfare. Militaries around the world are increasingly incorporating technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), drones, robots, 3D/4D-printing technology, and real-time satellite monitoring into their arsenal to give themselves an advantage over their adversaries and ensure that combat missions proceed as smoothly as possible. But what if this technology falls into the hands of terrorists? This prospect sounds particularly frightening when you consider personalised bioweapons.

A team of researchers from Cambridge’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) recently published a report in which they warn about the possibility of developing biological weapons that can target individuals in a specific ethnic group based on their DNA. Due to recent advancements in the fields of genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, and autonomous vehicles, this scenario is no longer as far-fetched as it once was, which is why governments need to start preparing for it and devise strategies to protect their citizens. “More nefarious hands could (as they have before) develop pathogens and toxins to spread through air, food and water sources,” write the scientists. “And the technology is becoming increasingly sophisticated at ever cheaper prices, democratising the ability to harm more quickly and lethally. In a particularly bad case, a bio-weapon could be built to target a specific ethnic group based on its genomic profile.”

Could a rogue nation hack the climate?

Geoengineering has been touted as a potential solution to climate change for quite some time. Sometimes also referred to as climate hacking, it involves ideas like sucking up CO2 with artificial trees, cloud seeding, solar radiation management (blocking the Sun’s rays), and spraying sulphur particles into the atmosphere to create a cooling effect. While some of these ideas seem rather bizarre, the whole concept is starting to gain traction in certain scientific circles. However, there are also those who believe that geoengineering is dangerous. If something goes wrong, or if the tech falls into the wrong hands, the consequences could be devastating. Some are even suggesting that a rogue nation could use it to weaponise the weather.

The biggest problem with geoengineering is that anything you do in one part of the world could have unintended consequences in another. “The atmosphere has no walls,” explains Andrea Flossmann, a weather-modification expert with the World Meteorological Organisation. “What you add may not have the desired effect in your vicinity, but by being transported along might have undesired effects elsewhere.” For instance, deploying aerosol injections in the southern hemisphere could affect ocean temperatures and wind speeds, which could result in more hurricanes in the northern hemisphere or even irreversibly alter the Earth’s atmospheric chemistry. “The side effects may be almost as bad as the disease you’re trying to cure,” says Bill McKibben, an author and environmental activist.

Does national security outweigh the right to privacy?

The debate over data privacy and national security is as old as the internet itself. While both of these rights are important and protected by law, one often comes at the expense of the other. So where exactly do you draw the line? We live in an age in which almost everyone has an online footprint, with various companies gathering vast amounts of personal data, which they then use for sales and marketing purposes. We often take that for granted, but we object when the government does the same. How come? This is a very complicated issue and we are unlikely to find the solution to it anytime soon. Should we sacrifice our right to privacy in exchange for security? Or the other way around? The debate rages on.

The future of law enforcement

New technologies have brought significant change to law enforcement. Policing will become increasingly data-driven and new roles will emerge. Law enforcement officers will need to be more tech-savvy, assess their environment rapidly, analyse data for insights, and get deeply involved in their communities. To tackle new threats posed by advanced technologies, law enforcement will need to create an organisational culture that promotes innovation and strategic foresight. Via apps and innovative tech like VR/AR headsets, hazard sensors, protective exoskeletons and predictive policing software, future crime fighters will be nothing short of high tech.

Over the years, our world has become increasingly connected and reliant on technology. While this has undoubtedly made our existence more enjoyable, it has also introduced a new and powerful threat — cyber attacks. Always looking for new tools to help them pursue their illegal goals, criminals have never shied away from innovative technologies, engaging law enforcement agencies in a never ending technological arms race. Whether they are holding an entire city hostage or hacking the climate, criminals are becoming more sophisticated and dangerous than ever before, forcing us to rethink how we approach security.

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