The integrity of the World Wide Web demands that the law abiding citizen is free to enjoy the fruits of the astonishing advances made in online applications over the past few years with no fear of damage or loss to their equipment, finances, business or privacy.
The more sophisticated the technology, seemingly the threat of breach of security increases accordingly. Just a few short years ago, a hacker was seen as some kind of college nerd who would dream of breaking into the NASA mainframe. Today's cyber criminals are highly organized gangs raking in millions from unsuspecting corporations and government departments on a global scale.
Computer criminals traditionally would cause a machine to become infected in order to maximize disruption to the owner. Access was generally gained via email attachment which would replicate itself on the unfortunate recipient's computer and cause damage by destroying data or even wiping clean the hard drive. This kind of activity is now offered as a service by unscrupulous villains whose knowledge and skill are on a par with the top legitimate programmers.
In a recent article from wired.com newsletter, Dual Perspectives, Kevin Poulsen explains how the first real world user of one of the latest security algorithms, MD-6, was a gang of highly trained malware writers who used the algorithm as the basis of a nasty spam email worm, Conficker.
It would seem that these smart, highly funded cyber criminals are probably based in Russia or in one of the former Soviet satellite states, such as Ukraine. Phillip Porras, the cyber threat expert at SRI International who dissected Conficker, questions whether these sophisticated gangsters have turned to hacking "as a service" in countries where it is more difficult for them to sell mainstream software. Certainly, there are fewer opportunities for legitimate coders to ply their trade in that part of the world.
An even more harrowing prospect is emerging in the realms of neural engineering, a developing technology that makes it possible to use computers by thought patterns. In the past year, neural engineering has made tremendous advances and tasks like maneuvering a wheelchair without raising a finger have been developed.
Tadayoshi Kohno of the University of Washington has raised concerns that if researchers pay scant attention to the necessary security issues, then in five or ten years' time there could be far reaching consequences to the benefactors of the fast developing technology. In what is tantamount to "hacking into the brain", potential life saving applications, such as deep brain simulators or electrode systems for controlling prosthetic limbs could come under threat.
Some of the developments and potential threats outlined in this article may seem the stuff of Star Trek, but as Kohno points out, just fifty years ago the thought of putting a man on the moon bordered on science fiction; the reality manifesting itself just ten years later.