Cybercrime: Everything in the Digital Space is Up For Grabs – Everything

Do you know how your iPhone works? Because cybercriminals do. Futurist and global security advisor Marc Goodman explains how our void in tech knowledge lets hackers have a field day, and how to make yourself less vulnerable.

Marc Goodman:  Technology can be used against us in ways that we don’t understand. Most people in our modern society have become expert users of technology but they have no idea how things operate under the hood. This is true of all generations, particularly with millennials. People think millennials are great with tech and it’s true they’re expert users. But when it comes to understanding the science of technology, the computer and science and the electrical engineering that goes into making a particular app work most people are clueless. And the challenge of that is that there are people in our world who know how technology works. The people who create those tools out in Silicon Valley and elsewhere and then other people who take the time to educate themselves. Whether it be people who have studied it professionally or on their own but in particular even criminals and terrorists and rogue governments have worked on these tools, decompiled them, deconstructed them and the fact of the matter is most criminals understand your iPhone better than you do and can use it against you.

When people think of cybercrime or computer crime they always think of the basics. My credit card number got hacked. My identity was stolen. That type of stuff. It’s so common these days to tap into most people at one point in their life or another. But there are so many other things that criminals can do with technology that the average person wouldn’t even realize. So let’s take your mobile phone for example. There was an android exploit that came out recently called Stagefright and just by sending a text message to an individual on an android phone anybody who read those messages or clicked on the links their mobile phone could be taken over in an instant. The fascinating thing about it is is that it affected one billion android users across the world. So just one hacker could have taken over a billion android devices. And once they have access to the devices not only can they read everything that you type, get access to your entire address book, see every photograph private or not that you may have ever taken on your phone. They can get access to all your social media accounts, capture your email address and your log on credentials and password for all of your financial apps, for your bank accounts, investment accounts and the like. And they can even track you physically in the world and know where you are at any particular time.

So they can track your physical location. Moreover they can actually remotely turn on your microphone and your phone’s video cameras without you knowing it. So the way that these exploits work you would see no indication on your phone that it is in fact recording, it’s being turned against you. It’s become a bug and can transmit all of your conversations 24/7 to hackers. And they can even go ahead and surreptitiously take over your camera. In fact not just on your mobile phone but of course the very same things are true on your computers. We’ve had many, many people have their laptop cameras hacked and they didn’t even realize it. A famous case occurred about a year and a half ago where a young woman, 15 or 16 years old, I think she was 16 was Miss Teen America. A young lady by the name of Cassidy Wolf. So she was obviously very attractive, Miss Teen America. And one day sitting in her bedroom on her laptop she opened it up and saw an email that came in. And underneath the email were a bunch of pictures of her naked in her own bedroom. And there was a message attached that said you better have sex with me on camera or I’m going to release all of these pictures and post them on your Facebook profile and the like and share them across your social media. She freaked out, didn’t realize what happened, slammed down the laptop and then she did something very, very important.

Rather than ignoring it or exceeding to the extortionists request she told her parents who brought in the FBI and investigated. And they found out after several months of investigation that it was actually one of her classmates who had sent her an email message. She clicked on the link that downloaded malware onto her computer which gave him access to her whole machine. So the young girl didn’t do anything wrong. Her laptop was just in her bedroom and the fact that it was open, that she was coming in and out of her bathroom after taking a shower he was able to capture these photographs.

You might have thumbs of lightning that can Snapchat, text, tweak phone settings and fire up Facetime all within 60 seconds (while shooting finger guns to yourself in the mirror for being such a tech boss), but do you know how exactly your iPhone works? Chances are you don’t know what’s going on under the hood of your gadgets.

Welcome to the Age of Entanglement. Devices have become so complex that they have surpassed the ordinary person’s understanding – or more accurately surpassed their curiosity.

Recently there has been a series of airline system outages, like Delta last month for example, that have grounded flights and backlogged them for days. No one at Delta knew, or still knows, what exactly went wrong. The company’s system is so cobbled together with various technology that no single person fully understands it. Figuring out where the problem occurred would be an investigative nightmare.

We can scorn Delta, but on a personal level we are all guilty. Do you know how your tablet works? How your laptop and modem work? What is a router? How does the internet operate? Even the concepts that we all take for granted, like photography, are steeped in mystery. We’re all proficient users, but our tech comprehension is low, low, low.

But some people do understand. Scientists, programmers, inventors, technicians, hobbyists. And criminals, says Marc Goodman, a global security advisor and futurist. Goodman says that technology can be used against us in ways we don’t understand, and it’s our cluelessness that makes it possible. Criminals take the time to learn, to deconstruct devices and to educate themselves so they can hack the system. We often fret about identity theft, card scamming, private photo access, but Goodman – bless his cotton socks – highlights and entire laundry list of things criminals (and governments) can do.

Did you know hackers can track your physical location? They can remotely turn your device’s microphone and camera on and off without you knowing. They can commandeer your entire device while it’s idle or in your pocket. You’ll never know. If you leave your laptop open, they can activate your camera, take photos of you in your own home, in bed, or out of the shower, which is what happened to 16-year-old Cassidy Wolf, Miss Teen America, who was then blackmailed for sex (don’t worry, she did the smart thing and told her parents, and the FBI took it from there).

Goodman recommends that each of us work on our curiosity about technology and not accept our luxuries as ‘magic’ that just does it’s special thing. Get more informed about how devices work, how they can be tinkered with, and take simple precautions to protect yourself from cybercrime. As a byproduct, you may also become more grateful for the incredible technology at hand and not throw a Veruca Salt-style tantrum when things don’t work this very second. There’s a lot going on behind the scenes. Learn and appreciate it.

Marc Goodman's book is Future Crimes: Inside the Digital Underground and the Battle for Our Connected World.

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Best case: redrawing borders leads to peace, prosperity and EU membership. But there's also a worst case

Image: SRF
Strange Maps
  • The Yugoslav Wars started in 1991, but never really ended
  • Kosovo and Serbia are still enemies, and they're getting worse
  • A proposed land swap could create peace - or reignite the conflict

The death of Old Yugoslavia

Image: public domain

United Yugoslavia on a CIA map from 1990.

Wars are harder to finish than to start. Take for instance the Yugoslav Wars, which raged through most of the 1990s.

The first shot was fired at 2.30 pm on June 27th, 1991, when an officer in the Yugoslav People's Army took aim at Slovenian separatists. When the YPA retreated on July 7th, Slovenia was the first of Yugoslavia's republics to have won its independence.

After the wars

Image: Ijanderson977, CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Map of former Yugoslavia in 2008, when Kosovo declared its independence. The geopolitical situation remains the same today.

The Ten-Day War cost less than 100 casualties. The other wars – in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo (1) – lasted much longer and were a lot bloodier. By early 1999, when NATO had forced Serbia to concede defeat in Kosovo, close to 140,000 people had been killed and four million civilians displaced.

So when was the last shot fired? Perhaps it wasn't: it's debatable whether the Yugoslav Wars are actually over. That's because Kosovo is a special case. Although inhabited by an overwhelming ethnic-Albanian majority, Serbians are historically very attached to it. More importantly, from a legalistic point of view: Kosovo was never a separate republic within Yugoslavia but rather a (nominally) autonomous province within Serbia.

Kosovo divides the world

Image: public domain

In red: states that recognise the independence of Kosovo (most EU member states – with the notable exceptions of Spain, Greece, Romania and Slovakia; and the U.S., Japan, Turkey and Egypt, among many others). In blue: states that recognise Serbia's sovereignty over Kosovo (most notably Russia and China, but also other major countries such as India, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Iran).

The government of Serbia has made its peace and established diplomatic relations with all other former Yugoslav countries, but not with Kosovo. In Serbian eyes, Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008 was a unilateral and therefore legally invalid change of state borders. Belgrade officially still considers Kosovo a 'renegade province', and it actually has a lot of international support for that position (2).

The irony is that on the longer term, both Kosovo and Serbia want the same thing: EU membership. Ironically, that wish could lead to Yugoslav reunification some years down the road – within the EU. Slovenia and Croatia have already joined, and all other ex-Yugoslav states would like to follow their example. Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia have already submitted an official application. The EU considers Bosnia and Kosovo 'potential candidates'.

Kosovo is the main stumbling block on Serbia's road to EU membership. Even after the end of hostilities, skirmishes continued, between the ethnically Albanian majority and the ethnically Serbian minority within Kosovo, and vice versa in Serbian territories directly adjacent. Tensions are dormant at best. A renewed outbreak of armed conflict is not unthinkable.

Land for peace?

Image: BBC

Mitrovica isn't the only area majority-Serb area in Kosovo, but the others are enclaved and fear being abandoned in a land swap.

In fact, relations between Kosovo and Serbia have deteriorated spectacularly in the past few months. At the end of November, Kosovo was refused membership of Interpol, mainly on the insistence of Serbia. In retaliation, Kosovo imposed a 100% tariff on all imports from Serbia. After which Serbia's prime minister Ana Brnabic refused to exclude her country's "option" to intervene militarily in Kosovo. Upon which Kosovo's government decided to start setting up its own army – despite its prohibition to do so as one of the conditions of its continued NATO-protected independence.

The protracted death of Yugoslavia will be over only when this conflict is finally resolved. The best way to do that, politicians on both sides have suggested, is for the borders reflect the ethnic makeup of the frontier between Kosovo and Serbia.

The biggest and most obvious pieces of the puzzle are the Serbian-majority district of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, and the Albanian-majority Presevo Valley, in southwestern Serbia. That land swap was suggested previous summer by Hashim Thaci and Aleksandar Vucic, presidents of Kosovo and Serbia respectively. Best-case scenario: that would eliminate the main obstacle to mutual recognition, joint EU membership and future prosperity.

If others can do it...

Image: Ruland Kolen

Belgium and the Netherlands recently adjusted out their common border to conform to the straightened Meuse River.

Sceptics and not a few locals warn that there also is a worst-case scenario: the swap could rekindle animosities and restart the war. A deal along those lines would almost certainly exclude six Serbian-majority municipalities enclaved deep within Kosovo. While Serbian Mitrovica, which borders Serbia proper, is home to some 40,000 inhabitants, those enclaves represent a further 80,000 ethnic Serbs – who fear being totally abandoned in a land swap, and eventually forced out of their homes.

Western powers, which sponsored Kosovar independence, are divided over the plan. U.S. officials back the idea, as do some within the EU. But the Germans are against – they are concerned about the plan's potential to fire up regional tensions rather than eliminate them.

In principle, countries consider their borders inviolate and unchanging, but land swaps are not unheard of. Quite recently, Belgium and the Netherlands exchanged territories so their joint border would again match up with the straightened course of the Meuse river (3). But those bits of land were tiny, and uninhabited. And as the past has amply shown, borders carry a lot more weight in the Balkans.

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