Hack­ing for hu­man­ity

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

“Life,” Os­car Wilde fa­mously said, “im­i­tates Art far more than Art im­i­tates Life.” In the case of Sony Pic­tures’ movie The In­ter­view, the world found it­self con­fronted with a fur­ther it­er­a­tion: life im­i­tat­ing art im­i­tat­ing life. The movie’s re­lease sparked in­ter­na­tional in­trigue, drama, and shad­owy geopo­lit­i­cal power strug­gles. It even prompted a grave US Pres­i­den­tial ad­dress – all for a sim­ple case of hack­ing.

Hack­ing into in­for­ma­tion sys­tems is noth­ing new; it goes hand in hand with the emer­gence of telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions. One of the first at­tacks struck Guglielmo Mar­coni’s demon­stra­tion of ra­dio trans­mis­sion in 1903, when he com­mu­ni­cated from Corn­wall to London, 300 miles away. Nevil Maske­lyne, a mu­sic-hall ma­gi­cian and would-be wire­less ty­coon, who had been frus­trated by the Ital­ian in­ven­tor’s patents, man­aged to take con­trol of the sys­tem and broad­cast ob­scene mes­sages to the Royal In­sti­tu­tion’s scan­dalised au­di­ence.

Though hack­ing is as old as wire­less it­self, much has changed since Mar­coni’s time. In­for­ma­tion net­works now blan­ket our planet, col­lect­ing and trans­fer­ring im­mense amounts of data in real time. They en­able many fa­mil­iar ac­tiv­i­ties: in­stan­ta­neous com­mu­ni­ca­tions, so­cial me­dia, fi­nan­cial trans­ac­tions, and lo­gis­tics man­age­ment. Most im­por­tant, in­for­ma­tion is no longer se­questered in a vir­tual realm, but per­me­ates the en­vi­ron­ment in which we live. The phys­i­cal, biological, and dig­i­tal worlds have be­gun to con­verge – giv­ing rise to what sci­en­tists re­fer to as “cy­ber­phys­i­cal sys­tems.”

Au­to­mo­biles, for ex­am­ple, have evolved from straight­for­ward me­chan­i­cal sys­tems into ver­i­ta­ble com­put­ers on wheels. The same thing is hap­pen­ing to other con­sumer goods: We now have con­nected wash­ing ma­chines and learn­ing ther­mostats, not to men­tion Blue­tooth tooth­brushes and com­put­erised in­fant scales.

In­deed, cy­ber-phys­i­cal sys­tems range from the macro level (think ur­ban trans­port, like Uber) to the mi­cro (say, the beat­ing of a hu­man heart). Our very bod­ies, strapped with con­nected wear­ables, are to­day im­bued with more com­put­ing power than all of NASA at the time of the Apollo mis­sions.

All of this prom­ises to rev­o­lu­tion­ize many as­pects of hu­man life – mo­bil­ity, en­ergy man­age­ment, health care, and much more – and may point to­ward a greener and more ef­fi­cient fu­ture. But cy­ber-phys­i­cal sys­tems also heighten our vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties to ma­li­cious hack­ing, an is­sue that is be­ing dis­cussed at the World Eco­nomic Fo­rum in Davos. Far from be­ing iso­lated in cy­berspace, at­tacks can now have dev­as­tat­ing con­se­quences in the phys­i­cal world. It is an an­noy­ance when a soft­ware virus crashes our com­put­ers; but what if the virus crashes our cars?

Ma­li­cious hack­ers are dif­fi­cult to com­bat with tra­di­tional gov­ern­ment and in­dus­try tools – the Sony Pic­tures case be­ing a telling ex­am­ple. Hack­ing can be car­ried out any­where and ev­ery­where, po­ten­tially in­volv­ing mul­ti­ple net­works in ob­scure lo­ca­tions. It de­fies con­ven­tional re­tal­i­a­tion and pro­tec­tion strate­gies. As then-US De­fense Sec­re­tary Leon Panetta warned in 2012, given its cur­rent sys­tems, the United States is vul­ner­a­ble to a “cy­ber Pearl Har­bor” that could de­rail trains, poi­son wa­ter sup­plies, and crip­ple power grids. So, how can such a sce­nario be pre­vented? One op­tion, sur­pris­ingly, could be to pro­mote wide­spread adop­tion of hack­ing it­self. Fa­mil­iar­ity with hack­ers’ tools and meth­ods pro­vides a pow­er­ful ad­van­tage in di­ag­nos­ing the strength of ex­ist­ing sys­tems, and even in de­sign­ing tighter se­cu­rity from the bot­tom up – a prac­tice known as “white hat” hack­ing. Eth­i­cal in­fil­tra­tion en­ables a se­cu­rity team to ren­der dig­i­tal net­works more resistant to at­tack by iden­ti­fy­ing the flaws. This may be­come rou­tine prac­tice – a kind of cy­ber fire drill – for gov­ern­ments and busi­nesses, even as aca­demic and in­dus­try re­search fo­cuses in the com­ing years on the de­vel­op­ment of fur­ther tech­ni­cal safe­guards.

In gen­eral, to­day’s de­fenses take the form of au­ton­o­mous, con­stantly vig­i­lant dig­i­tal “su­per­vi­sors” – com­put­ers and code that con­trol other com­put­ers and code. Sim­i­lar to tra­di­tional mil­i­tary com­mand-and-con­trol pro­to­cols, they gain power in num­bers and can quickly re­act to a broad ar­ray of at­tacks. Such a dig­i­tal ecosys­tem strength­ens checks and bal­ances, re­duc­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of fail­ure and mit­i­gat­ing the ef­fects of an in­cur­sion.

In such a fu­ture sce­nario, a Hol­ly­wood block­buster might be about net­works of com­put­ers fight­ing each other, while hu­mans stand by. It would por­tray the broader idea of “sin­gu­lar­ity,” a hy­po­thet­i­cal turn­ing point when the ar­ti­fi­cial sur­passes the hu­man. For­tu­nately, in this case, life is still far from im­i­tat­ing art.

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