Adapted excerpt from CYBER WARS for Thrive Global

The future is heading towards us pell-mell, bringing new opportunities for hackers to exploit . . .

So what might the hacks of two or three decades hence look like?

Imagine this: You’re a passenger in a new self-driving car, which is approaching a stop sign at a busy intersection. Ahead, cars are zooming across the intersection at right angles to you. The car, following the rules of the road, will have to stop and wait its turn. You’re expecting it to do so, as it has done at every other junction today and previously.

The car doesn’t stop, it carries on through the stop sign and you’re seriously injured in the resulting crash. Why didn’t the car stop? Because someone messed with the stop sign by putting a couple of stickers on it. They’re unremarkable to human eyes, but to the machine learning system deciding the car’s movements, they were so radical that it didn’t recognize it as a stop sign any more. In September 2017, a team of researchers from the universities of California, Washington, Michigan and Stony Brook demonstrated that they could get a neural network which normally recognized stop signs to misclassify it as an advisory speed limit sign. ”Our work does serve to highlight potential issues that future self-driving car algorithms might have to address,” the researchers wrote. Wasn’t this helping hackers? ”No – on the contrary, we are helping manufacturers and users address potential problems before hackers can take advantage”’ they commented.

Now imagine this: You’re at home, with your front door powered by a ‘smart lock’ which you can control with an app on your smartphone: it even works with voice commands, so all you have to say is ‘unlock the door’ and it does so. As you browse on your laptop, you’re shown a targeted ad on a social network, with some puppies running around. You like puppies. You turn up the volume to listen to it better – and hear your front door unlock.

How? The advert, targeted specifically at you, included a ‘Dolphin attack’: voice instructions encoded at an ultrasonic frequency that you can’t hear, but which your phone detects perfectly. In November 2017, a team from China’s Zhejiang University published a paper proving how this could be done. The researchers showed that the method of ultrasonic ‘speech’ instructions could be used to dial phone numbers, open websites and generally make smart devices do what you’d expect them to, without you realizing they’ve been told to.

The cyber wars of the future are not so far away.

The following is adapted from Cyber Wars by Charles Arthur ©2018 and published with permission from Kogan Page Ltd.

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