Saturday, January 23, 2016

Future Crimes

Future Crimes; Everything is Connected, Everyone is Vulnerable, and What We Can Do About It
Paperback subtitle: Inside the Digital Underground and the Battle for Our Connected World 
© 2015 Marc Goodman
608 pages

"It's not safe out here. It's wondrous, with treasures to satiate desires both subtle and gross. But it's not for the timid."  (Q, ST TNG)

 The future is arriving more quickly than we think,  the world being re-formed beneath our feet. Ten years ago, the fact that a presidential candidate was glued to his ‘BlackBerry’ was an oddity;  now, smartphones are the very way we interface with our environment.   The transformation of the world from material to digital is total, providing new avenues for the darker instincts of  mankind to exercise themselves alongside entertainment, commerce, and education. Future Crimes is an astonishing review of the myriad of ways that this brave new world is making us not only more productive, but more vulnerable to malicious attack – and offers insight into the dangers we will face tomorrow.  This is a book without  rival.

 Goodman writes as a law enforcement official who specialized in cyber security as computers left warehouses to become basic infrastructure. Now, after decades of experience, he shares extensive research and personal encounters with the reader. He begins by treading familiar ground at first, by reviewing  the state of overwhelming exposure people now live in. As learned in Data and Goliath, virtually everything we do generates data that is collected and evaluated by someone, whether it’s our phone company keeping a history of where our phone travels, apps within the phone transferring our information to marketing agencies, or our interactions with the online world being monitored and recorded, as Google sifts through our email – and our websearches, and our YouTube viewing history, and our web activity on Android and Chrome – ostensibly to sell ‘better ads’.   It's not just Google, of course: facebook is another major data distributor, but practically every website that depends on adspace is complicit.

 Adding to this, however, is the threat of outside attack: criminal elements corrupting apps or creating their own to collect data for more malicious purposes, like emptying our bank accounts – or entities across the globe, looking for secrets.  The fact that a person is an American or German national won’t stop Chinese companies from having an interest in their personal business if they are involved in technical enterprises of interest.   Blueprints of the US president’s personal aircraft, for instance, were obtained by the Chinese after a defense worker’s laptop was infected with targeted malware.  It’s not just smartphones, either: as computers undergird our very homes, surveillance no longer requires a group of fictional plumbers poking around installing cameras into  ceiling fans.  These days, even the power outlets can have ears.

 Data collection isn’t just a problem for privacy issues: the concentration of so much information invites crime.  When heist extraordinaire Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks, he replied simply – that’s where the money is. Why penetrate Target’s databanks? That’s where the information is  --  high-value credit card information.   The exposure isn’t all about profit, either, though the information superhighway has already helped far-distant predators steal and skedaddle. The early hackers practiced their craft for laughs, and so they still do – but the odds at stake are higher than simply wiping out computer drives.   Future Crimes documents one case of a young teenager whose laptop was infected with software that allowed an outside party – a teenager at her school who was not even reasonably clever, but purchased a kit – to  turn on her webcam,  collect photographs of her in states of undress, and then attempt to blackmail and humiliate her. Even after she switched schools,  the photos became the arsenal of bullies there,  their hounding continued after a failed suicide attempt, and eventually ended only when she succeeded in killing herself.  Secure in anonymity, able to meddle in the lives of others from safety, humans are willing and capable to do all matter of wretched things.

The fun will continue as the 21st century develops. Our digital world is in its infancy, a mere golf ball of connectivity compared to the solar-sized scale of tomorrow.  In the years to come,  it is possible that most every object in our home will be connected to an internet of things, and even if paranoiacs and luddites like myself object, regulation and market availability may force some level of IoT integration.  The systems that control our lives – traffic management, electrical grids, financial markets – are managed online, and each of them has already been tampered and manipulated by tech-savvy hoods.  As the world continues to become more automated,  services performed by machines running on software that can be manipulated,  our danger grows.  Military drones have already been touched by malefactors – insurgents can watch a drone’s feed as it approaches, or skew its navigation so that it blows up the wrong neighborhood. (Assuming it had the right neighborhood to begin with...)   Manufacturing robots have already proven themselves lethal,  sometimes mistaking human laborers for parts to be manipulated, and if their software is tampered with, accidents could be effected on purpose.

Future Crimes is a daunting, eye-opening book.   Even after reading other books on cyber-security,  Goodman provides case after case I hadn’t heard of. This is five hundred pages of disturbing reporting and evaluation,   dense and powerful.   Like any security auditor, Goodman doesn’t leave readers shocked but helpless: the last fifth of the book offers some ideas into protecting ourselves.   Part of the problem is that culture has not caught up to technological change yet: as smartphones ease  un-informed adults into the digital world, people unprepared for vigilant defense of their information expose themselves to a burgeoning number of thieves and opportunists.   Not even those who should know better are ready; many of the instances document here come from military or security officials not being fastidious enough, with the result that a virus intended for an Iranian offline network traveled to the International Space Station.   In addition to arguing for regulations that force private enterprises to take more fiscal responsibility for safeguarding the information they collect,  Goodman shares more interesting ideas, like crowdsourcing better digital security systems.

Two things are certain: we’re in for a ride in the next decade, and I won’t find a more eye-opening book this year.  This book delivers reams of eye-opening information. It would make for an interesting exposure of crime merely by itself,  but goes beyond that to brief readers on the multitude of security challenges we face now, and will face tomorrow, threats to our personal, corporate, and national security.  Future Crimes is well worth your time: it, and the world it opens one's eyes to, are incredible.


I have a few more titles in this vein that will appear later this year, like Richard Clark's Cyberwar and Glenn Greenwald's No Place to Hide.  They may succeed, but they won't surpass....


  1. Good review! This book is on my read soon list. I shall look forward to sharing thoughts on it.

  2. It's a bombshell, for sure. Given your interest in drone warfare, look forward to their coverage.


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