Cyber Security and Cyber Crime are booming right now. The internet of things offers profound promise for productivity enhancement, but the more computerized commerce becomes, the more vulnerable it is to hacking. Here The Economist reports on the realities of computer security.
COMPUTER security is a contradiction in terms. Consider the past year alone: cyberthieves stole $81m from the central bank of Bangladesh; the $4.8bn takeover of Yahoo, an internet firm, by Verizon, a telecoms firm, was nearly derailed by two enormous data breaches; and Russian hackers interfered in the American presidential election.
Away from the headlines, a black market in computerised extortion, hacking-for-hire and stolen digital goods is booming. The problem is about to get worse. Computers increasingly deal not just with abstract data like credit-card details and databases, but also with the real world of physical objects and vulnerable human bodies. A modern car is a computer on wheels; an aeroplane is a computer with wings. The arrival of the “Internet of Things” will see computers baked into everything from road signs and MRI scanners to prosthetics and insulin pumps. There is little evidence that these gadgets will be any more trustworthy than their desktop counterparts. Hackers have already proved that they can take remote control of connected cars and pacemakers.
It is tempting to believe that the security problem can be solved with yet more technical wizardry and a call for heightened vigilance. And it is certainly true that many firms still fail to take security seriously enough. That requires a kind of cultivated paranoia which does not come naturally to non-tech firms. Companies of all stripes should embrace initiatives like “bug bounty” programmes, whereby firms reward ethical hackers for discovering flaws so that they can be fixed before they are taken advantage of.
But there is no way to make computers completely safe. Software is hugely complex. Across its products, Google must manage around 2bn lines of source code—errors are inevitable. The average program has 14 separate vulnerabilities, each of them a potential point of illicit entry. Such weaknesses are compounded by the history of the internet, in which security was an afterthought (see article).
Leaving the windows open
This is not a counsel of despair. The risk from fraud, car accidents and the weather can never be eliminated completely either. But societies have developed ways of managing such risk—from government regulation to the use of legal liability and insurance to create incentives for safer behaviour.
Start with regulation. Governments’ first priority is to refrain from making the situation worse. Terrorist attacks, like the recent ones in St Petersburg and London, often spark calls for encryption to be weakened so that the security services can better monitor what individuals are up to. But it is impossible to weaken encryption for terrorists alone. The same protection that guards messaging programs like WhatsApp also guards bank transactions and online identities. Computer security is best served by encryption that is strong for everyone.
Read more here.
Jeremy Jones, CFA
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