Terrifying tech to haunt your Halloween

Horrifying hackers, undead malware and IoT devices that listen from beyond can make for a scary digital world.

Computerworld - Spooky, Scary Tech [Slide-01]
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The Halloween demons lurking in tech

You may be too old to fear monsters, but have you thought about how scary our technological, always connected, 21st century world has become?

We have. Sophisticated hackers, the dark side of IoT, undead malware, botnets and autonomous vehicles taken over by hackers. It’s enough to make you want to scurry back to the 20th century.

It turns out that our enthusiasm for ever-smarter devices and autonomous technologies may well have opened a gateway big enough to threaten both privacy and security.

If you want to be terrified for Halloween, don't waste your time worrying about monsters that don't exist. Focus on the high-tech ones that do.

Computerworld - Scary Tech [Slide-02] - IoT that’s always listening
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IoT that's always listening

Everyone wants to talk to their smart home. Whether you use the latest Amazon Echo, Google Home, the upcoming Apple Siri audio system, or one of a host of third-party devices from Sonos and others, it's a great feeling to walk in the door and announce to your empty house, "Hey Google, turn on the kitchen lights." It's like living in Star Trek.

To do that, these devices have to always be listening. And that begs an obvious question: Who else is listening? There is already a court case where Amazon released an Echo's audio so the court could use it as evidence in a murder trial. Solving a murder (with the defendant's permission)? Sure, that's still fine, right? But is this a slippery slope toward George Orwell's dark world in 1984 where The State is always listening?

There is a natural tension between convenience and privacy. And even a privacy conscious company like Google is capable of making mistakes. It recently had to disable a feature on the brand new Google Home Mini after early adopters realized it was surreptitiously recording conversations. Chilling.

Computerworld - Scary Tech [Slide-04] - Zombie botnets. Zombies. Yikes.
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Zombies in the machine

Warning: Zombies are getting smarter. Even clever nerds are no longer safe.

Even if you diligently run Kaspersky security and keep it up to date and configure your router for maximum security, they can get in. Kaspersky has been accused of being spyware in the employ of the Russian government. And your router? If you haven't upgraded in the last few days, it probably has the latest WPA2 security vulnerability, which can inject ransomware and steal data from your network.

Still think you’re safe? How about this one: You have a couple of employees who pop over to The Pirate Bay to grab a movie. They shouldn't, and maybe you even blocked their access. But they use a VPN and sneak through. Now your computers are part of a botnet being used to help others mine for bitcoins. Your system is running more slowly than it should. But otherwise, there's no visible clue it's happening.

Who doesn't like a good zombie movie like World War Z? But when they take over your computers, that's an infection of a completely different kind.

Computerworld - Scary Tech [Slide-05] - Encryption systems with backdoors
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Encryption systems with backdoors

The history of human communication has included codes and secret languages as far back as we have records. From rhyming slang to simple code wheels to Enigma machines, we’ve devised ways to keep our secrets, well, secret. These days, encryption systems are so critical that they're categorized as a munition and regulated as national security secrets.

That’s why it's alarming to learn that foundational encryption algorithms aren't as secure as we thought. In 2013, a team of researchers hacked into 4096-bit RSA encryption using only a microphone listening to a computer's CPU. And Google reported earlier this year that SHA-1 encryption wasn't secure. That's why the latest version of Google Chrome and other Web browsers now flag sites that aren't using a secure socket layers (SSL) protocol that's more sophisticated than SHA-1. SSL alone will not keep your Web communication safe.

And like an 80's techno-thriller script, some encryption systems have backdoors. In fact, many governments keep demanding that backdoors be installed intentionally into user encryption software. And while the FBI claims it is frustrated by its lack of access to your smartphone, it still manages to bypass security and biometric lock systems when it really wants to.

Computerworld - Scary Tech [Slide-07] - Hackable autonomous vehicles
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Hackable autonomous vehicles

Sit back, relax and leave the driving to them? The average American drives more than 13,000 miles a year. But we also like our smartphones. The combinations is deadly. Cell phone use behind the wheel causes 1.6 million crashes each year. It's no wonder car manufacturers are adding lidar, radar, and intelligent systems that avoid accidents.

In fact, these technologies – adaptive cruise control, pedestrian-sensing emergency braking, lane guidance systems – are stepping stones on the path to fully autonomous vehicles.

But consider what would happen if autonomous cars and the technology they rely on were hacked. How much chaos could be created if a society that relied on autonomous vehicles suddenly couldn't trust them? What if someone hacks into your transport and starts spoofing sensor inputs and sending 'brake now' or 'turn left' or 'disable front proximity sensor' commands while you zip along a highway at 70 mph?

For most profit-driven hackers, the autonomous car isn't a juicy target. But it might be interesting as a cyberwarfare tactic. On Star can already locate and stop or unlock your car remotely if it’s stolen or you are locked out. What if someone less concerned with your welfare hacked that system?

Computerworld - Scary Tech [Slide-08] - Ground controlled autopilots that can get malware
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Malware-infested public transportation

If hacked autonomous vehicles aren’t creepy enough, what about airplanes, high-speed trains, or hyperloop systems? If a hacker can flip one gate, one traffic signal, one weather radar, or one go-slow sensor into a state other than what's needed, it could cause mayhem. Paging Stephen King.

In the world of cyberwarfare, anything is game. The General Accounting Office of the U.S. government released a report back in 2015 warning that airline computer systems are vulnerable, both when a plane is on the ground and – alarmingly – even during flight.

That started when cybersecurity consultant Chris Roberts claimed that he'd hacked into the entertainment system of a United Airlines domestic flight and managed to issue a "climb" command to the autopilot. The FBI investigated. The plane's manufacturer denied what he claimed was even possible. We don't really know what happened. But most systems have vulnerabilities.

Trains aren’t much different. The San Francisco Muni system and German train stations have both been hacked. And Melbourne's train system had a glitch – possibly caused by a hacker – that shut down every line in the system.

Computerworld - Scary Tech [Slide-09] - Hacked election balloting systems
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Hacked election balloting systems

Democracy is built on the voice of the citizenry. And there is no better way to hear that voice than with polling. But counting ballots by hand is so...1800's. In this era, we should have a secure digital way to count ballots, right? It seems not. Blame hackers. It's why we can't have nice things.

Anyone who has managed even a trivial online voting campaign knows they are easily gamed. A quick Google search will find online tutorials on how to cheat at online voting. If we can't figure out how to use electronic polling for student council president, how can we rely on it for a presidential election? We probably can't.

Journalists don’t agree on the degree, but there is a widespread assumption that Russian hackers skewed the results of the last presidential election. They didn't even have to alter the final count. In North Carolina, voters were turned away from polls because they were listed as ineligible to vote – after Russian hackers accessed those records. In a close race, turning people away can alter the outcome. (In this case, it was in a blue-leaning neighborhood in a swing state.)

Computerworld - Scary Tech [Slide-03] - Facial recognition systems reporting to secret govt agencies
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Scanning your face in the crowd

Walk into a Las Vegas casino and they know who you are. You are being watched by video monitoring system while your face is run through facial recognition software. If you are the same guy who dropped some bad paper, the security team will immediately identify you. The systems in high-end casinos can then track your path as you walk past the slot machines, stop for a bite in the restaurant, and sit down to play Texas Hold-em.

Anywhere people congregate, facial recognition systems are used. Super Bowl XXXV security teams scanned faces as they went through entrance turnstiles, flagging known criminals. Banks use them, too. Identifying terrorists and robbers before they act is the goal.

But the privacy problems are alarming. Imagine the aggregate data the FBI or NSA could have at their fingertips. Is your every move is being tracked and analyzed? Shades of Minority Report's "precogs" flagging you as a potentially dangerous criminal because you frequent a rough bar, shop at gun stores, or visit a free clinic.

That chilling totalitarian dystopia may be just a few keystrokes away.

Computerworld - Scary Tech [Slide-10] - Drones and the erosion of privacy
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Spy drones steal your privacy

Picture yourself sunbathing in your backyard. You’re awakened by a whine high in the sky. A drone. Is someone filming your mid-summer beauty efforts?

Inexpensive drones can hover and transmit HD video to a ground control station as much as two miles away. In a few years, they'll be able to hover a quarter mile above a target – so high you can't hear them. But you don't own the air space above your home. If you did, planes would have to worry about their right to fly over neighborhoods.

Privacy advocates have been pushing for enforceable drone privacy laws. But, while the idea of being spied on from above is creepy, drones have other purposes. The police use them to monitor and prevent gang fights and crime. Amazon wants to use them to deliver your packages.

It's a complex issue that remains unresolved. Meanwhile, listen up. If you hear a hum above you, it might be a neighbor, or someone miles away, spying on you.

Computerworld - Scary Tech [Slide-11] - 3D printers able to print fully functional weapons
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3D printers that print functional weapons

Copiers always invite trouble. They’ve been used to create fake letterheads for con artists, money for counterfeiters, and works of art to sell on the black market. Imagine the added dimension of chaos as we move from 2D copies to 3D printing.

As we struggle with mass shootings and gun control debates, we have to consider that people will probably figure out how to 3D print functional and reliable weapons.

This has been haunting the 3D printer world for years now; in 2013 the BBC reported that a working gun had been printed and demonstrated to work. It wasn't reliable or accurate, but, that was then. 3D printed guns are getting better – scarier – every day.

Computerworld - Scary Tech [Slide-12] - Language translation systems run by big brother
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Language translation run by Big Brother

Google announced a few months ago that its PixelBuds were better than Apple's AirPods because Google's units offer real-time language translation. In a design that's remarkably close to the fictional babel fish of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, these let you listen to a foreign language and have it instantly translated to your native tongue. Fantastic stuff.

Language translation has come a long way and now automatically appears in services like Gmail and Facebook. It may never be as good as a native language translator, but it is shrinking our world.

What if your documents, emails and Facebook posts are being logged as you translate them? What if, for example, the NSA cuts a deal with Facebook to get a copy every time someone in the U.S. translates something from Russian to English?

If you go down Paranoid Road very far, you can imagine a convergence with all the other anxiety-provoking technologies. What if your beloved Amazon Echo offers a translation service so you can talk to anyone from anywhere, while the government listens in?

This is all scary stuff. Sounds like a good time to watch something a little less technically terrifying, like It.

Or should that be IT?