If you don’t use a computer or a smartphone, you’re at no risk for attack by malicious hackers, right?
Wrong. Just because it doesn’t look like a computer doesn’t mean it is a computer, and the interconnectedness of all devices today means that our worlds are becoming far more computerized than ever before, even if it’s not obvious.
Imagine the average hacker becoming bored with trying to climb inside CIA or banking networks and suddenly turning to other targets: the electronics handling car engines, brakes and door locks; the routers that form the Internet's backbone; the machines running power plants, rail lines and prison cell doors; and even implantable medical devices such as defibrillators and insulin pumps.
Imagine an organized crime group being able to eliminate police officers, judges or prosecutors by simply being able to hack into those individuals’ cars’ computers and causing the brakes to fail. Scary stuff, huh? It sounds like the basis for a science fiction movie, yet it’s a reality today.
A little close to home, imagine how easy it would be for a rival company to hack into one of your company’s printers. In 2011, two computer scientists from Columbia University demonstrated an easy way to hack into HP printers in such a way that they could view everything that was printed, and then easily view anything on any computer connected to that printer. (HP has fixed that bug.)
But many more remain, and it has been reported that many computers and peripherals in sensitive government agencies have no protection on them past their factory defaults.
The U.S. government is not unaware of the scary potential. In October, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta warned that the U.S. faced the threat of a "cyber Pearl Harbor" if it failed to adequately protect these systems. His comments echoed a warning CIA Director John Deutsch gave to Congress in 1996, according to a recent article in Scientific American.
To help address the problem, computer scientists today are building guardians called “symbiotes” designed to run on embedded computers regardless of the underlying operating systems. In doing so, they may not only help protect the critical infrastructure of nations and corporations, but reveal that warfare against these devices may have been going on unseen for years, researchers say.
While the work has been called “very promising,” it’s likely that somewhere, a malicious hacker is already working on a way to get around them.
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