Thursday, 14 November 2013

When it comes to Security - Nothing is Impossible

In 1995, the movie ‘Hackers’ premiered, and the feedback was unanimous: “Exaggerated! How on earth was that even possible?!”

Almost ten years on, and these ‘exaggerated’ ideas have become a reality. The film features a virus called ‘Da Vinci’ — a remote-controlled virus set to sink a fleet of oil tankers from afar. Exaggerated, right? Well, at this year’s Hack in the Box security conference, we learnt that the possibility of a virus hijacking an airline was not that far off.

An earlier film, ‘War Games’, sees Matthew Broderick playing a small-time hacker whose initial objective was simply to play games, but ends up hacking into the US Government’s mainframe. When challenged by his peers about the complexity of a system he has gained access to, he replies, “Hey, I don’t think any system is totally secure.”

This quote from a 1983 movie is still worryingly relevant in today’s society. Millions are spent on devising complex and diverse security architectures, but with every security advance, there are more determined and more specialised hackers attempting to break into the systems.

In today’s society, it takes a lot more than computer competence to become a hacker. Kevin Mitnick, one of the world’s best-known hackers and, at one time, America’s most wanted computer criminal, used simple social skills to overcome and bypass some of the most highly-secured facilities. Mitnick helped coin the term ‘social engineering’; using deception and emotional manipulation to gain access to otherwise impenetrable systems. As Bruce Schneier once said, “Amateurs hack systems. Professionals hack people.”

Electronic communications via email, chat applications, SMS, phone calls, or VoIP can all be broken down into zeros and ones. These days, communication means data, and data can mean information, which then leads to value. Controlling information means controlling the situation. Between 2007 and 2008, Chinese hackers were able to hack and control two US satellites for a total of 11 minutes, intercepting information transmitted between the satellite and NASA. Whoever gained access to the data chose not to do anything with it, but it became a landmark in highlighting issues of cyber security.

The new generation of hackers no longer just hack to disrupt services and infrastructure. They hack to take control of information and data. In the modern age of technology, the value of your data inside your flash drive could be one of the most valuable things in your arsenal.

The things that we have now, the systems we are using, the mobile phones we carry are the result of hacks that were done during the computer revolution back in the 70s. The technologies that you and I have at hand are partially the result of those people who broke the law to modify, create and innovate.

The gift of hindsight has allowed us to see the technological pathways that computer hacking has forged. Where once, hacking possibilities were at the hands of film directors and novelists, they now lie in the hands of anyone with imagination.

As industry leaders in communication, it is our job to have an awareness of the potential risks and pitfalls that hacking can create. By keeping an open mind to hackers and technological creativity, we can ensure that we are able to defend and foresee any threat in the digital world. As Einstein once said, “Imagination is sometimes better than knowledge.”

This article was also posted at

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