Last week, the media carried a story that a computer security firm, Proofpoint, had announced that sometime in late December 2013 or early January 2014 hackers had launched a cyber attack that took over approximately 100,000 “smart” home appliances such as refrigerators and televisions that were connected to the Internet and used them to send out malicious emails. Recently, Target announced that hackers had stolen personal information of 70 million people who had shopped at the store around Thanksgiving 2013.
And, last week, Google announced that it had purchased Nest, a new technology company that makes thermostats and home fire alarms that are connected to the Internet. It would appear that we have reached a point where the increasing pervasiveness of “smart” (i.e. Internet-connected) devices is becoming almost as much of a security risk as Internet connected computers.
When I was a teenager, I was addicted to Rod Serling’s television show Twilight Zone. I remember one particular episode that I found particularly frightening. It began with a woman doing the housework in her home. As I recall, she was vacuuming the living room carpet. All of a sudden the vacuum began to act of its own volition. Almost immediately, the kitchen appliances began to turn themselves on and aggressively pursue the poor woman who, of course, was completely terrified.
As a teenager I wanted to be a scientist and I remember thinking that this show was just another anti-science dystopian vision designed to frighten people into shunning new technology. I never, in those days, could have imagined that Serling’s anti-technological vision of the future could one day be real. And, yet, it would appear that Serling was prophetic.
Month after month, the news is full of incidents in which personal financial and other information is stolen. “Identity theft” has become the plague of modern times. And, as the recent Target incident underlines, nobody is safe. Even the largest retailers and financial institutions are vulnerable.
But to me, this new development in which smart electronic and devices and appliances can be hacked by somebody half across the world is even more worrisome. Do I really want to take the chance that some ingenious 13-year-old somewhere in Africa or Asia can take control of my home heating system and do with it as he wishes? Do I need to be worried that all of the high-tech systems in my car might be hijacked by a hacker? The answer, of course, is a resounding “no.” Identity theft is bad enough, but the damage can usually be repaired and is rarely life-threatening. Losing control of a car or a furnace, on the other hand, can well cause injury or even death.
As far as I am concerned, the advantages of having smart appliances and a smart car and a smart heating system may well be overwhelmed by the danger that they may be hacked and taken over by strangers. I think that I am going to be very hesitant to purchase any of these devices until their manufacturers can guarantee that they are safe from outside control. I suspect that many people may well agree with me.