Smart Devices – Could your computer make you sick?
According to an old saying, “when America sneezes, the world catches a cold”. What if, however, smart devices developed to a point where a supercomputer could sneeze and make the world catch a cold? That time may not be so far off.
A very brief history of computer viruses
Computer viruses have been around since there were computers. However, in the days before the internet, they tended to be low-key affairs. This was essentially because software had to be loaded from a physical device, which not only vastly reduced the options for tricking someone into installing malware but also vastly reduced a virus’ ability to spread.
That all changed with the advent of the internet and then the arrival of connected devices further broadened the range of opportunities available to those intent on making mischief. Since then, there has been a long and miserable succession of virus attacks of various degrees of severity and receiving various degrees of publicity.
In the UK, the most infamous example of a cyberattack is probably still the WannaCry virus attack which crippled the NHS back in 2017. While this certainly merited the headlines it generated, the fact that it was so open in its attack meant that the damage it caused was quickly recognised (if not fixed); but the real danger may come from those who use more subtlety and/or pick on smaller targets.
Criminals can be much smarter than smart devices
So-called “smart” devices are often of great concern to cybersecurity experts. One excellent example is that of an unnamed casino, which was hacked through a “smart” thermometer in one of its fish tanks. As a result, part of its user database was stolen, which could mean that further down the line there may be harsh real-world consequences for real, flesh-and-blood people. When a customer database is hacked the exploited customers could be vulnerable to credit card fraud and even identity theft, leading to chaos in their lives while they try to resolve the issue.
Recent research at Ben Gurion University showed another way that hackers can have an impact on individuals’ lives, and it is potentially devastating. Malware altered scan images and led three radiologists to believe that they could see cancerous tumours in their patients’ MRI and CT scans. The same malware could also be used to remove tumours from scan images, which could lead patients into a false sense of security that their health is fine.
In this case, this was part of ethical research, not a malignant hacking attempt, but it shows what is becoming possible.
Regular people could make easy pickings for ruthless criminals
The level of skill needed to attack a casino or a CT scan is likely to be well in advance of the level of skill required to attack the home of an average person. There have already been well-documented instances of people hacking into wireless-linked cameras, some of which were installed for security reasons.
In these cases, however, there are often further, more significant, challenges that would need to be overcome before cybercriminals could do any real damage. There is also, generally, a fairly simple way for a victim to end these attacks, namely to disconnect the device. The problem, however, is that as more and more devices go online, (IoT – Internet of things) it becomes harder and harder just to disconnect them to end an attack.
For example, “smart” fridges can helpfully prompt a homeowner when they are running low on a certain type of food, but that may not seem such a benefit if they end up being locked down by a cybercriminal – until a diabetic’s insulin is inside.