Former Los Angeles policeman and FBI futurologist Marc Goodman has spent the past 20 years on the techno-crime fault line. Here he explains why technological villainy will always outstrip the lawmakers.
Crime is escalating, says Marc Goodman. But it's not just old-fashioned person-on-person crime that is increasing. This scaling in illegal activity is happening because today more and more crime is executed by computers. 'Now we have 'crime bots' - software that illegally disrupts,' Goodman explains. 'The challenge for society is that we don't have 'cop bots'. We don't have security scaling at the same rate, which is why crime is getting ahead.'
Goodman is in London to promote his new book 'Future Crimes', and as we sit in a swanky cafe looking out over one of the more benign sectors of the South Bank it's hard to imagine the seedy digital underbelly of a virtual world that he's just devoted nearly 400 pages to. 'One of the things that people don't understand about crime today is that it is no longer committed by people. That is the big change in crime, and that is why cybercrime can grow exponentially.'
We're talking about hacking, ID theft and fraud. Or so I suppose. But according to the former Los Angeles policeman, that's old news. 'We used to think that if we were being hacked, there was some 17-year-old kid in his mum's basement behind it,' says Goodman. 'But today crime is scripted, and master hackers are writing criminal software. In the same way that we're used to software as being a service, crime is now a service: something you can buy. The master hacker writes the program and sells it like any other business. Sure it will commit ID theft for you, but what we're talking about is industrial espionage, denial of service, infrastructure disruption, that sort of criminal activity.'
Goodman, with the air of someone describing the 'good old days', says once upon a time crime was personal. An individual was robbed one-on-one, face-to-face, where all the technology that was required was a flick-knife. 'But then, as technology developed, we found we could rob more people. The locomotive presented an ideal opportunity to hold hundreds of potential victims. Fast forward to the Sony PlayStation hack and you can see tens of millions were vulnerable. With 1.3 billion people on Facebook, that number can go up.'
A life of crime
New Yorker Goodman has worked in law enforcement for most of his adult life at what he describes as the point of intersection where 'being a cop meets technology.' He started out on the beat as a uniformed officer and clearly remembers his early days as a detective when he enjoyed a reputation for being part of the burgeoning techno-elite. This was based on the fact that he was familiar with the Ctrl+F2 feature on WordPerfect that operated the spell check. He has since worked with Interpol and the FBI as their futurist in residence, before heading into the private sector in 2010, embarking on a multi-faceted career that involves writing books about techno-crime and advising on Hollywood movies.
If this hands-on experience has taught him anything about the relationship between the outlaw and technology it is that 'criminals are early adopters. They used pagers long before any cop I knew had one. They had cheap cellphones before we did. Today criminals are building fully-encrypted national telephone networks in Mexico, while we can't get decent reception here in London.'
'Future Crimes' - subtitled 'A journey to the dark side of technology and how to survive it' - is Goodman's myth-busting debunker of some of the most common assumptions society holds about cybercrime. 'We think we are sitting at the pinnacle of technological achievement. But what most people don't realise is that we are in the first seconds of the first minutes of the first hours of the Internet. We are infants and don't realise how wide and far these technological developments will bring us. We are living in the age of Moore's Law where computer speed and processing power double every 18 months and we tend to see only the good in that.'
With Moore's law come Moore's outlaws. These are the people who use and abuse the exponential growth of computer power. 'People write books about cybercrime, but what many of them don't realise is that it is only the beginning and we are in the earliest days of technological crime. Tomorrow there will be robots everywhere. There are just walking, flying, driving computers, and because they are computers, they are as hackable as your Windows laptop. The Internet of Things - the next 200 billion devices that we are going to add to the grid of interconnectivity by 2020 - is hackable. So is machine learning, artificial intelligence and so on.' Goodman thinks that it is lunacy that we have built 21st century society's critical digital infrastructures in a way that they are vulnerable to cybercrime. 'We've wired the world, but we've failed to secure it.'
Criminals aren't intrinsically cleverer than the law enforcement agencies, but they do have different resources. One of Goodman's favourite ways to express this is to paraphrase Woody Allen, who once said that organised crime in America takes in over $40bn a year and spends very little on office supplies. 'It's not that the coppers are less smart: it's just that there are system constraints under which they need to operate. National law, national boundaries and bureaucracy are things that just don't apply to criminals.' In other words, law enforcement is regulated, while the world of the outlaw, by definition, isn't.
If we take the shrieking headlines of the tabloid media even remotely seriously then we might forgive ourselves for thinking that we are under constant threat of vicious and devious cyberattack from the criminal and terrorism communities. Goodman thinks this is only part of the story and that more invidious forms of personal invasion come in the way 'governments and big business extract your personal details in exchange for entering a modern world we increasingly feel forced to take part in.'
What this all boils down to is the emergence of a new literate class that Goodman compares with the clergy of the Middle Ages. 'In those days the only stratum of society where literacy was commonplace was the clergy. This gave them tremendous power. The priest knew what God said because it was in a book, and so we had to listen to the priest because only he could read the book. Today, there are new digital literati: there are those who can code and those who can't. People who understand technology have power over those that don't. If you can't read binary or know how programming languages work, then you're going to the game blindfold. If you don't read Latin, you've got no choice but to believe what the priest is saying.'
Goodman thinks that his book is 'a parable about man versus machine, where we are in the world and who are the new centres of power. Whether the centre is GCHQ, Google or an organised crime cell in Russia, these are the people with the power, because these are the people who can code and understand how this tech works. If they care more about how your iPhone works than you do, then don't be surprised if they can do things with it that you can't.'
This is why, he says, the cover of the UK version of 'Future Crimes' is illustrated with a Wi-Fi icon drawn in blood, smudged and splattered, showing what Goodman explains happens 'when you don't take care of your security.'
Lessons from history
While researching 'Future Crimes', Goodman found that when most of us think of cybercrime our instinct is to go to personal finance fraud. But this could be as nothing if his fear of the threat to critical infrastructures is well-founded. 'The far bigger challenge we face today is that computers run all of our critical global infrastructures. Airports, rail systems, traffic lights, health records and water supply - these are all hackable. When IPv6 comes along the Internet will be able to support 2128 connections. Speaking metaphorically for a moment, if today's Internet is the size of a golf ball, tomorrow's will be the size of the sun. People don't understand the implications of IPv6. With that, you could take every grain of sand on planet Earth and assign it a trillion IP addresses. Every physical object on the planet could be connected to the Internet. Every object will have a history and can be attacked. It's not just your server at work: it's your toothbrush, your microwave. There are now stories of refrigerators being hacked and brought into bot-net networks. There are even apps doing Bitcoin mining in the background. How does that affect us?'
A key area is in what Goodman calls the nexus between the digital world and physical objects. In 'Future Crimes' he tells the story of how laser printers are being remotely hacked to override their overheat cut-out circuitry. The hacker then sends large volumes of print jobs to the printer, causing it to become dangerously hot and set itself on fire. 'Casino CCTV can be hacked, fire alarms can be turned off remotely, while privacy takes on a new meaning. The old model for determining whether to burgle your house might have been based on an accumulation of newspapers on your front doorstep or the fact that your porch light hasn't been switched on in days. Now we can tell whether your refrigerator door has been opened recently.'
This isn't science fiction, says Goodman. 'It is happening now and our behaviour becomes knowable through the connected devices we have on us. Whether it is a phone or an ECG, data is being accumulated and we can be spied on.'
'The challenge with Moore's Law is that technology is exponential in its nature. It's doubling, doubling, doubling… If I take 30 steps linearly, one step after another, I'll get from here to the front door. But if I take 30 steps exponentially, I get to the moon. Technology is exponential, but all our societal systems are decidedly linear, if that, barely. Police, linear. Government, linear. Ethics, linear. Which means that robots are going to pose huge ethical questions for society. Likewise, there is a ton of questions that goes with Big Data, but we don't have Big Data ethicists. We will see tremendous issues moving forward with neuroscience, where we will develop the ability to read deeper into the brain. In India, there is already the case of the woman who was accused of killing her spouse and being forced to take a functional MRI scan. She was shown photos of the crime scene and based on her brain activity while looking at them it was concluded that she was familiar with the scene. This was admissible and she was convicted of murder. There are huge ethical questions. Where's the science here?'
Despite the fact that as citizens we have never been more exposed to external monitoring, and despite there being a 'whole ball of ethical thinking that needs to be done in the near future', Goodman remains optimistic about where all this connected technology is taking us. For all the crime that he has seen in his career and for every alarming scenario his research has exposed, his faith in our ability to solve societal problems is absolute: 'We've faced big problems before and we have solved them.'
He says that popular technology books are written by two types of people with predictable approaches. 'The first, written by neo-Luddites, takes the view that technology is evil and it is going to kill us. The second, written by Silicon Valley folk, posits that technology is awesome. But, what I have tried to do is take the middle path. Sure, technology is awesome and it can be amazing. Through technology we will have the ability to take two billion people out of poverty in the next few decades. It will radically extend life and reduce infant mortality. Somebody with a $30 Internet-enabled tablet can sit in Africa and take a degree course at MIT. The world can be educated to an extent that was never previously possible. That is my cause for optimism. But the real kicker is simply that there are way more good people in this world than there are bad.'
'The point I really wanted to make with 'Future Crimes' is that we can have that brighter technological future, but it is not going to come for free. And right now corporations and governments, criminals and terrorists are using that technology against the masses. I want people to be aware of this so that they can take part in their future and own that technology. But if we just continue as consumers to use the Internet without understanding the implications of its misuse, then we shouldn't be surprised if things go awry.''*
Future Crimes by Marc Goodman is published by Bantam Press, £20.00