July 28, 2013
“One ought never to turn one’s back on a threatened danger and try to run away from it. If you do that, you will double the danger. But if you meet it promptly and without flinching, you will reduce the danger by half. Never run away from anything. Never!” — Winston Churchill.
It’s with the words of Winston Churchill in mind that we need to confront an issue that will exist as long as we continue to drive forward as a connected, technologically advanced world. The issue we face lurks in the shadows and underground movements.
It’s the dark side of technology…
There is “world ending” potential that innately comes with great tech breakthroughs and innovation. It’s those that twist technology with the potential for good to be an instrument of evil and to take part in illegal, criminal activity that we must be aware of.
It’s the epitome of good vs. evil, Skywalker vs. Vader.
You need only to watch the daily news or head down to the local cinema to see how the world will end up when technology takes over. Rise of the Machines, Big Brother, HAL 9000, The Matrix… all (fictional) examples of technology spreading evil and atrocity.
Typically, we paint a rosy picture of the future. We think technology will bring great prosperity to the world. The benefits of technology will far outweigh the perils and dangers that are so often the focus of people’s mindset.
However, it would be remiss of us not to delve into some of the potential dangers of technology. Thus, in understanding the good that comes from tech, it’s important to understand the darkness that also comes with breakthroughs and innovation.
To paraphrase Churchill, don’t run from it; confront these issues and you might have a part in making sure the future of our world sides with the good technology can bring, not the dark side.
The Dark Web, Your Online Shadow
One fact of life you need to get your head around if you have a computer is this: According to the annual Norton Cybercrime Report (NCR), there’s a 66% chance you have already experienced cybercrime. That figure will grow over time. It’s rational to say if you use a computer, you will experience cybercrime at some stage in your life.
That’s serious. You will experience cybercrime. Maybe they should change the famous saying to “There are only three certainties in life: death, taxes, and being hacked.”
The NCR also estimates in 2011 cybercrime fleeced the world of over $110 billion. Let’s break that down a bit further.
Every second of every day, 18 people fall victim to cybercrime. That’s over 566 million people per year. If it takes you 10 minutes to read this essay, 10,800 people will have been victimized by some form of cybercrime.
And cybercrime comes in some innocuous forms. Most cybercrime operates silently, through malware, viruses, and Trojans. (These are all types of little bugs that silently sit in your computer and provide information to their creators, hackers.)
You might see it as an email from “Canadian pharmacy,” or possibly an email from a lawyer in Nigeria claiming you’re entitled to a multimillion-dollar estate claim. At the other end of the spectrum, you might be a direct target: your bank account defrauded, your identity stolen, or your website hacked.
Scammers send over 75 million scam emails every day. And every day, about 2,000 people fall into the trap.
But when it comes to your online security, there’s actually a pretty easy solution to it all. Have strong passwords and some level of online security.
It’s that simple. Have a difficult password with both uppercase and lowercase letters and numbers. Do that and you greatly decrease your risk of becoming another cyber victim.
It will take a hacker over 438 times longer to crack a six-digit password with uppercase and lowercase letters and numbers than a password with just lowercase letters.
However, as strong as your security might be, there’s a situation where no matter what you do, no matter how much security you have, if hackers want your information bad enough, they’ll get it.
And I’m not talking about some well-paid teenager in a warehouse full of computers in the back streets of Moscow. (Most people think the U.S. and China have the most active hackers. Russia actually has more hacks originate from it than any other country in the world.)
I’m talking about hackers that sit inside the walls of the civil service. I’m talking about government-employed hackers, spooks, and spies. If they want information, they’ll comfortably find a way to get it.
You might have heard of the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) and their PRISM program. Effectively, PRISM is a monitoring project, with the NSA taking information about everyone from the data servers of Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft, and other major tech companies.
If it wasn’t for the now infamous whistle-blower Ed Snowden, we’d all still be none the wiser. And the NSA would continue on their merry way watching everything we do online. Note: There’s a pretty good chance they’re still doing it anyway.
But it’s not just American government agencies that are proficient in monitoring their citizens. Have you ever received a letter or email from the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) saying you haven’t declared interest from one of your online savings accounts? I have, and so has Kris. It concerns us how the ATO knows I had $2.63 in interest in the 2011-12 financial year.
It’s the same deal when e-tax asks if you want to pre-fill your tax return. Pre-fill? With what information? Oh, just my income, interest, purchases and sale of stocks, Medicare info, etc. The list of information the Australian government has about me is profound. And disturbing. If you think your information is private, you’re wrong.
[Ed. note: E-tax is a government service in Australia that allows taxpayers to pay their taxes electronically.]
With that in mind, when the government asks you to voluntarily part with your information for research or for maintenance, tell them to bugger off.
One more point on online security and privacy. You need to treat your mobile phone and tablet as a portable computer. Meaning you need the same security measures to protect yourself on the go. If you ever connect to a public Wi-Fi network, make sure you’ve got high-level security. When you use public Wi-Fi, you may as well be a Millwall fan walking into a West Ham pub… you will be attacked.
So be smart, have different passwords, make them difficult, and don’t open any emails from Nigerian lawyers. Also be discreet with how much of your own information you hand over to government departments. It will go a long way to protecting you online.
But the dark side of technology isn’t just about cybercrime and the pitfalls and perils of living in an interconnected world.
Don’t Think About It, It Might Land You in the Slammer
Take, for instance, our ever-increasing knowledge of the human genome and the current work to map the neurons and connections of the brain. This will help take the world forward in neuroscience and our understanding of human biology. It will also help us develop computer and artificial intelligence systems to improve the efficiencies of the world.
But there is, of course, a dark side to all this. What if particular brain activity and genes that you had meant that were potentially a psychopath or a career criminal?
Think about it. What if, because of your DNA and your brain waves, scientists could predict that you were more likely to commit crime in your life?
What if they had the power to lock you up… even before you’d actually committed a crime? And who’s to say you would ever commit a crime? Because science also says environmental factors play a significant role in criminal activity.
We all know governments love to find ways to control citizens, and they always find a way to take an authoritarian approach to crime. With the use of powerful supercomputers, algorithms, molecular technology and neuroscience, maybe the next step in fighting crime is to predict it. It’s already happening.
Scientists in New Mexico are already using brain scans to predict criminal behavior:
“The scientists studied the brains of 3,000 convicted criminals using magnetic resonance imaging. They specifically studied the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a brain region associated with error processing. What they found is that inmates with low ACC activity were twice as likely to commit crimes within four years of being released as those with high ACC activity.”
And if the study of the brain leads to predicting criminal behavior, what if even before a child is born, genetics will be able to determine criminal traits?
With readily available technology, you could manipulate the unborn child’s genes to silence the unwanted genes, breeding crime out of future generations.
Not only does that kind of genetic manipulation throw up a whole range of ethical issues, but it also goes a long way toward generations of genetically modified children. Is that wrong? Or is that the inevitable way of the future?
That’s a whole different discussion which we won’t delve into now. But one thing’s for sure: Molecular technology will have a big impact on the lives of generations now and of generations that aren’t even born yet.
Iraq, Iran… What About Your Own Neighborhood?
Finally, one of the more underground elements of the dark side of technology is accessibility of illegal things to everyone.
With the Internet effectively connecting everyone, more and more people have the resources available to take part in illegal activity.
Put it this way: Right now, without too much stress, I could anonymously get online, find my way through to a black market website and purchase guns, high-powered lasers, or illegal substances. It’s as easy as shopping on Catch of the Day or eBay.
And if you’re a smart kid with an interest in science, there’s opportunity (with the wrong influences) to start down a path that leads to some pretty terrifying stuff. Michio Kaku, a famous theoretical physicist, describes the potential dark side technology has for the generations to come,
“You can create a laser beam, a laser beam with exactly the energy of the difference between these two [uranium types, U235 and U238,] so that you can activate one, but not the other. In other words, laser beams can be used to zap these atoms and separate out U235 from U238. Well, this means, in some sense, somebody in their basement at some point in the future might be able to build a separation device to create U235. That’s a nightmare we don’t have yet, but it’s a nightmare we will have in the coming years as the price of laser enrichment of uranium goes down.”
What Kaku is describing is the potential for someone with access to the right tools in the near future to create enriched uranium. In other words, weapons-grade uranium. Forget Iraq and Iran, it might mean weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) next door!
The building works across from our office looks to have a suspiciously fortified basement being constructed… maybe it’ll be a secret science lab? A nuclear test facility? It’s unlikely, but it’s possible in the near future. Who really knows what goes on in the neighbor’s basement science lab?
It’s a pretty extreme example of the kind of dark activity technology provides access to. But you need to understand that it’s something that will always lurk around the corner in the shadows. The dark side of technology is always going to be complementary to the positive advances it brings.
The best way to combat the dark side of technology is to understand it and to not get paranoid about it. By getting a grasp of the things that are possible and the likelihood of things actually occurring, you will have a better understanding of how to deal with them.
Yes, you will likely be hit with a virus or malware. Yes, your information at some point will likely be used without permission, and yes, your neighbor will likely make some homemade rockets (WMDs are unlikely). But don’t get paranoid about it. There are more positives to take out of technology than bad points.
Just be smart. Have secure passwords, don’t divulge with information so freely, be aware of your surroundings and take care online just like you would if you were walking the streets at night on your own.
When you see the warning signs — when you notice something is awry in your bank account, when you read that Nigerian email or notice your son is spending way too much time in the basement with his lasers — you’ll be able to take action.
As we all have a greater understanding of technology, the good and the bad, we will be able to help shape the future to ensure good technology always outstrips the dark side.