Future Crimes: the harsh truth about cyber security

Future Crimes by Marc Goodman

Future Crimes is the scariest book I’ve read in years.

You’re almost certainly reading this review on a device powered by microprocessors. Do you know who’s looking over your shoulder as you read? I’m betting you don’t.

Let’s say you’re reading this by clicking a link on Facebook. If so, Facebook is recording that fact — and every other action you take while you’re on its site.

If you’re reading it on Amazon.com or Goodreads, Amazon is accumulating similar information about you and your preferences.


Future CrimesEverything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It by Marc Goodman @@@@@ (5 out of 5)


If you’ve accessed this review on my website using Chrome, Internet Explorer, or IOS, then you’re adding to the databanks of Google, Microsoft, or Apple — and all the personal data you have stored on your computer, notebook, or smartphone is also up for grabs.

All of the above is true

Don’t believe me? You could read the Terms of Service you okayed when you installed any of those programs. Admit it, now: you didn’t read that 50-page document in four-point type — and you’re extremely unlikely to do so even now. The Terms of Service issued by the companies that provide the software you use (and sometimes hardware, too) permit them to learn everything there is to know about you online and to do with it what they will. The same goes for any online vendor you’ve ever bought anything at all from. And what they all do is not just tailor their ads to your tastes and behavior: they sell that data to data brokers such as Axciom, Epsilon, and ReedElsevier, who in turn make it available to all comers. Including Internet thieves, terrorists, stalkers, anarchist hackers, and other miscreants. Assuming those same evil-doers haven’t already obtained all your information by hacking into massive databases such as those maintained by Target or Sony or, for that matter, the federal government.

Yes, you read that right: If you do practically anything online, your life is an open book to the world (unless you happen to be extremely sophisticated about cyber security). As Marc Goodman puts it in Future Crimes, “The more we plug our devices and our lives into the global information grid — whether via mobile phones, social networks, elevators, or self-driving cars — the more vulnerable we become to those who know how the underlying technologies work and how to exploit them to their advantage . . . Simply stated, when everything is connected, everyone is vulnerable.” All the more so because the bad guys are usually two steps ahead of the rest of us.

Now comes the Internet of Things

As if this isn’t bad enough, just wait for the so-called Internet of Things to mature. Already, the car you drive may have as many as fifty microprocessors embedded within it. Once your home becomes a “smarthome,” with all lights, locks, heating, cooling, and appliances controllable through a handheld device, your life will truly become vulnerable to malware (viruses, Trojans, and worms) as well as the predations of an identity thief or some other variety of Internet crook.

Already, a truly diabolical thief can acquire software that enables him to hold your computer hostage, locking you out of all your files unless you pay a ransom running to hundreds or even thousands of dollars. (Bitcoin is the preferred mode of payment.) And even if that thief can be identified by name and address, he’s probably working in plain sight in St. Petersburg or Kiev and completely out of reach of law enforcement.

So, you think your antivirus program will keep the predators at bay? As Goodman writes, “the antivirus software you are running on your own computer is likely only catching 5 percent of the emerging threats targeting your machine.” Yes, five percent. Moreover, a cyber attack is typically detected not in minutes or hours, when something might be done about it, but in months or even years.

It turns out that the Internet is a far more complex and dangerous environment than you’re likely to know. Certainly, I wasn’t aware that Google has indexed only 16 terabytes of the data that comprises the Internet, while 7,500 terabytes are hidden from view. A German research institute determined “that there were forty-nine million strains of computer malware in the wild. By 2011, the antivirus company McAfee reported it was identifying two million new pieces of malware every month.” Yes, every month. And McAfee’s estimate is a conservative one.

Much bigger threats

If only our personal electronic devices alone were at risk! Consider the US electric grid, “often called the most complex machine in the world.” Goodman cites a report by the US Department of Energy revealing that the grid “connects fifty-eight hundred individual power plants and has more than 450,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines. Yet 70 percent of the grid’s key components are more than twenty-five years old. Each of these components used much older . . . technologies that are readily attackable and persistently targeted.” In fact, Goodman goes on to report that one utility “had been the target of more than 10,000 attempted cyber attacks each month.”

Can you think of a more effective way to shut down American civilization than taking out our electric grid?

Do you think the Pentagon could prevent this? Think again. Chinese hackers working for their government have already acquired all the data associated with the “$300 billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter,” and that’s just the most expensive weapons system. They’ve also pilfered the plans for our missile defense system, our most advanced helicopters, and numerous others. “According to an FBI report,” Goodman writes, “China has secretly developed an army of 180,000 cyber spies and warriors, mounting an incredible ninety thousand computer attacks a year against the U.S. Defense Department networks alone.” And many of those attacks aren’t detected until years later.

You ain’t seen nothing yet

Ask anyone who is intimately familiar with the progress of scientific research and development, not just in the US but around the world: Artificial Intelligence, robotics, synthetic biology, nanotechnology, and other contemporary fields of inquiry are on the verge of creating enormous new opportunities for good — and terrifying potential for harm.

Much of Future Crimes is devoted to the vulnerability of the electronic devices we use today. That’s Part One. In Part Two, Goodman justifies the book’s title by exploring “The Future of Crime.” Read this, and I guarantee that you will be shocked by many of the examples Goodman cites that point to the dangers inherent in the new technologies now on the drawing board.

In Part Three, “Surviving Progress,” Goodman advances a number of recommendations about how to fight back against the hackers and Internet criminals who bedevil us today — and ameliorate or prevent the damage that future technologies might wreak on ourselves and our society. Some of these recommendations are bold, imaginative, and realistic. Future Crimes should be read by every government policymaker and every concerned citizen.

For additional reading

This is one of Two dozen good books about artificial intelligence reviewed here.

You might also check out my review of Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security and What to Do About It by Richard. A. Clarke and Robert K. Knake. It’s at An authoritative insider’s take on the threat of cyber war.

This is one of 20 good nonfiction books about the future (plus lots of science fiction).

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Andy Koenigsberg - 5 years ago

I was at a conference early last spring where I attended a presentation by a startup company specializing in data mining social media to look at trends in health and disease. I was gobsmacked to find that twitter and facebook make the torrent of data they generate available to anyone for free. If you post anything that could be visible beyond your circle of friends, it will be in that data stream.

Sadly, I am resigned to the fact that there is just not too damned much I can do to protect my privacy online any longer, other than not posting nude selfies.

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