July 12, 2016
Written by: Emmanuel G Escobar
In today’s day and age technology is all around us. We depend on it for our work, communication, transportation and health among other things. From the first computer that filled up a single room, technology has stretched through our lives such that we would have several pieces of tech around the house, on our desks, nightstands, kitchens and even bathrooms. For most of us, the use of technology is key in our work, we use it create documents, presentations, keep in contact with colleagues and store information. The transport of information has increased as the number of personal computers and the use of them increased. We know about the risks of viruses that jump around from infected computers to healthy computers and protect our devices by using anti-malware software. We protect our technology with passwords when we can and that is practically it. As far as we are concerned, we trust the technology because we have to. It makes our lives easier, more entertaining and keeps us connected with practically every corner of the world. In the background, as we navigate through the internet, communicate with our friends and send or receive information, there are several security mechanisms that have matured over the years. End to end encryption allows the transport of data to be secured, masking the identity of the sender by passing the encrypted information to several nodes before reaching its destination. When using online payment or accessing online banking we check security certificates, allowing us to trust that our sensitive information is securely communicated to and between the website and our bank. Think about how much information about yourself is communicated through the web. That can span from information given to government websites, when purchasing a plane ticket, being wished ahappy birthday through social media sites or even checking-in on Facebook. You may think that the information is safe and only people in your circle or authorised companies can access to that information. When in fact, all the information that is communicated online is like wearing it, anyone with the right tools could be able to access it. We like our privacy and it feels wrong when it is invaded, but how likely are you to notice that you are being watched?
Developers at Ubisoft managed to convince us of that, at least within the scope of their 2014 video game Watch Dogs, where they sold to us the idea that information is within our grasp. They portrayed a world where technology played a very important role in society. They introduced ctOS, which is the Central Operating System designed by Blume Corporation, set up to control and manage the city (a hypothetical Chicago), making residents feel safe. However, as you progress through the game, you start to realise that it is one of the major weaknesses of the city, one that is easily controlled and managed by hackers, questioning whether it helps or makes its residents vulnerable. When hacked into ctOS, the player gains access to non-player characters’ mobile devices, where things like bank details, phone or message conversations, music or even cars can be stolen—accessed. There are vulnerabilities in the technology throughout the city, which allows the player to control traffic lights, barriers, garage doors, bridges, unlock vehicles, gain access to the power grid and do surveillance throughout the streets by accessing CCTV cameras. The game is nicely laid out, with plenty to do around the city, from accessing text messages to prevent crime or intercept an item of interest, to hacking into private networks to spy on residents. With a hint of the Grand Theft Auto series, it adds a sense of thrill and adventure to Watch Dogs, creating what had been a new game and play style that players were anxious to see. The execution was not all positive, as gamers found some disappointment in what they had been sold at E3 versus when we actually received. But it led developers into making a new instalment, which we hope as gamers will address the difficulties the first game had. This time around, the game is aimed to allow players to immerse themselves into the city, to feel part of it and overall increase the realism of Watch Dogs 2. It seems that this time, we will be able to remotely start and control vehicles, so not only limited to unlocking car doors and switching them on. It sounds nice, but how much does Watch Dogs reflect on what already exists in reality?
Controlling cars? That seems a bit far-fetched you may think. Maybe you’ve had it with movies and video games foreshadowing future inventions, let’s face it, it’s past 2015 and there are no flying cars, hover boards, auto dry jackets or self-tying shoes. These items may not be in full production, but there have been individual attempts to bring ideas like this to prototypes. The reason why the idea of Watch Dogs existing in real life is so foreign to us is because unlike the extreme case of the vulnerabilities of ctOS, our current systems have enabled security to prevent the massive exploitation of technology for nefarious use. That is not to say that it doesn’t happen or that the technology does not exist, but we hardly see much of it going on. Knowing the risks, major companies invest in hiring whistleblowers, which comprise of computer specialists that try and find vulnerabilities in technology products or business hardware and software. When it comes to automobile security, General Motors has been on top of its game working alongside HackerOne to identify vulnerabilities in their cars that would allow hackers to access the car’s main computer. Samy Kamkar, once a computer hacker, now works as a whistleblower, informing companies of software vulnerabilities that could compromise their devices. In a news reportby the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Marketplace invited Samy to show to them how he would unlock and start a car, something that for the average gamer was solely limited to Watch Dogs gameplay. In fact, Marketplace shows that the more technology savvy fiends have access to this technology and are using it to break the law and steal from vulnerable cars. A backdoor is always necessary when the main access is compromised and manufacturers often implement such features to not render a product unusable in case an emergency is to arise. So having a third party company unlock a vehicle or using OnStar systems on cars that can bypass your inputs, is not something that is unexpected. Ever forget the passcode to the safe in a hotel? You don’t need to worry, hotel staff have a key that would unlock it, bypassing the security you depended on so much and trusted in the first place.
We know and understand the troubles of technology and when we depend on it so much, it’s not like technology will cease to exist any time soon. As long as we continue to trust it while knowing its weaknesses, manufacturers can implement the appropriate security measures to prevent attacks. Notorious computer hacker Pablos Holman thinks that the trait common in all hackers in curiosity. He believes that hackers are able to think differently, quickly adapt in stressful situations and problem solve and therefore cannot only be valuable assets to companies that want to prevent their systems being compromised, but also serve as innovators of technology, crafting tools that facilitate research. And when it comes to science, it’s the unconditional thrill of curiosity, passion and instinct to solve problems and challenges that allows scientists to think differently and push their research forward.
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