Microwaves that can spy are not so far-fetched – Europe faces a war against everyday objects

Julian King
Walls have ears? Wikileaks believes the CIA could hack into phones, TVs and other electronics to turn them into permanent listening devices: Getty

The first thing that I did this morning was to check if I had any pending updates to install on my smartphone. I recommend to everybody, without apology, this mildly annoying start to the day. Why? Because all of us need to play our part in the quiet and largely unnoticed battle that is raging in the virtual cyber world.

The publication by Wikileaks of documents which purport to show that the CIA has been developing its abilities to exploit vulnerabilities in everyday “smart” devices in order to gather information will inevitably increase our anxiety about the internet of things – everyday objects able to communicate with us, apps and each other via the internet.

We appear to be entering a new and darker phase in our relationship with technology – in particular the “smart” variety which is rapidly altering our interactions with everything from our laptops to fridges, cars and, yes, televisions. When machines that we watch for our entertainment become smart enough to watch us back it is time to pause for thought about where this journey from the analogue to the digital world is leading us.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Technology’s promise was to make our lives easier but, with cybercrime and hacking showing an exponential rise, and the front line of this new battle potentially in your living room, you could be forgiven for believing that the utopian future is being transformed into a dystopian present that was predicted with chilling accuracy by George Orwell in his novel 1984. Fortunately we’re not powerless in this fight – increasing awareness, resilience and deterrence are things we can do collectively to tip the balance back in our favour.

There is of course a legitimate ongoing debate about access to data by national intelligence agencies for specific law enforcement purposes. But, more widely, as Europol’s serious and organised crime report for 2017 reveals, highly sophisticated crime syndicates are increasingly using cyber in a way that affects us all. Cyberattacks have made the leap from being the niche activity of geeks to being the mainstream tools of the trade for crooks.

For almost all types of organised crime, criminals are deploying and adapting technology with ever greater skill and to ever greater effect. This is now, perhaps, the greatest challenge facing law enforcement authorities around the world.

Cryptoware – ransomware using encryption – has become the leading malware in terms of threat and impact. It encrypts victims’ user-generated files, denying them access unless the victim pays a fee to have their files decrypted.

Europol points out that the online trade in illicit goods and services is an engine of organised crime. Online fraud is now the most common crime in the UK, with almost one in 10 people falling victim. Half of all companies in Europe have experienced at least one cyber security incident. Globally, the cost to society of cyberattacks and cyber hacking in 2015 was estimated by Grant Thornton to be around $315 billion.

The dark web, a collection of websites operating on an encrypted network hidden from traditional search engines and browsers, is the criminals’ bazaar where, subject to the right introductions, I am reliably informed that I can rent a botnet for a modest sum which I could use to launch a Distributed Denial of Service campaign – that’s a cyberattack – against anyone I felt like.

As the internet of things grows we risk inadvertently lowering the threshold both in terms of cost and availability for these attacks. My smart fridge and TV have factory-set security codes, which is insecurity by design. This needs to change.

Working with colleagues across the European Commission, we are determined to implement a plan for reducing our vulnerability to cyber threats by increasing our resilience to attacks, reinforcing security by design, stepping up the fight against cybercrime, investing in cyber security – a public-private partnership launched last year is expected to trigger €1.8bn in investment by 2020 – and strengthening international cooperation.

The interconnected world offers many opportunities for citizens, governments and public and private enterprises to make a positive contribution to society. But it also offers unprecedented opportunities to criminals, terrorists, and hostile states. We must be better prepared for whatever the future holds.

Julian King is EU Commissioner for the Security Union

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