The List

4 Digital Threats to Worry About

From hacktivism to cyberwarfare, the dangers that define the digital age.

1. Privacy violations: Internet privacy is dwindling. Every purchase you make, flight you take, website you view, file you download, person you call, and email you send is tracked, and these profiles are then stored indefinitely and often sold to the highest bidders -- whoever they may be. Personal data long thought to be confidential simply isn't anymore. Consider your identity while walking down the street. Facial recognition technology has passed from law enforcement to the public realm -- Facebook uses it in many countries, gathering data from images to recognize you (unless you know to opt out of the feature). That's a violation of your right to privacy, right? Wrong. And who's to say Facebook's photo database, growing by several billion photos a month, won't be handed over to law enforcement agencies or corporations in the future?

2. Cybercrime: Cybercrime knows no boundaries. It allows criminals working from the other side of the planet to evade detection and confound law enforcement agencies that must work within their narrow jurisdictions. And it's massively expensive: The global cost of cybercrime has been estimated as high as $1 trillion a year, roughly on par with the international drug trade, according to the European Union. You might not think phishing and spam could result in physical harm and death -- but they can. In July 2011, a Japanese woman died after taking a prescription diet drug she had bought over the Internet. The drug arrived from Thailand and contained an undisclosed ingredient -- a controlled substance linked to heart failure. Fortunately, governments around the world have at last started addressing this issue. National cyberpolice units are set to increase in number, size, and funding, and the United Nations has a group devoted to this threat.

3. Cyberwarfare: The most destructive advanced malicious programs discovered so far -- Stuxnet, Duqu, Flame, and Gauss -- have actually been relatively benign, in that they haven't directly caused human casualties. The next time we hear of an act of cyberwar, however, it could be accompanied by a death toll. That's because cyberattacks have unpredictable side effects. The world's electronic infrastructure has become so interconnected that damage to a single target can quickly spread all around the world, even if by mistake. U.S. officials are rightly afraid of a weapon of mass destruction falling into the wrong hands. But they should also worry about the far more likely event of terrorists acquiring a cyberweapon. A simple slip-up could make it possible for anyone to steal, copy, or adapt a supposedly secret cyberweapon, turning it against its creators.

4. Hacktivism: The merger of hacking and political activism can wreak enormous havoc. Hacker groups such as Anonymous and LulzSec have been involved in security breaches of networks belonging to the United Nations, the CIA, and multiple security contractors, not to mention banks and major software vendors. They're also becoming even more dangerous. Hacktivists' goals used to be limited to stealing information or defacing a website, but now they are moving on. This August, for the first time ever, unknown hacktivists used malware to infect Saudi Aramco's network and destroy, the oil company claims, 30,000 computers. This is a very ominous precedent.



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