Feb 27, 2020 - Technology

Fear of a hackable planet

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

As the tech industry weaves its products into the fabric of the physical world, it's also extending the insecurities and dangers of digital systems in perilous new ways.

Why it matters: Just as we're finally getting used to the idea of protecting our online accounts and data, we have to start thinking about the vulnerability of the spaces and objects around us to small acts of trickery and sabotage that mess with computers' heads.

In the most dramatic recent demonstration of this technique, artist Simon Weckert "created" a faux traffic jam on Google Maps by filling a little red toy cart with 99 smartphones running the Maps app and rolling it down the sidewalk past Google's Berlin office.

  • Maps read the incoming signals to mean there were a lot of cars stuck on that street, and marked it red.

The big picture: Cybersecurity experts have long been sounding an alarm over the industry's failure to build proper security into "Internet of Things" products.

  • But physical-world hacks won't only happen through the digital lock-picking of internet-connected devices.
  • They will also increasingly take the form of people tampering with the physical world in order to trick, defeat or bypass machines.

Recently, researchers at McAfee tricked a Tesla into accelerating 50 mph by adding a small piece of black tape to a speed limit sign.

  • The tape fooled the vehicle into reading the speed limit as 85 instead of 35.
  • The vulnerability was in Tesla models from 2016. The manufacturer has since switched to a different camera.

Clothing and makeup to defeat facial recognition tech and other surveillance systems may sound like a joke or a gimmick, but "adversarial fashion" is real.

  • Protesters are the early adopters. In Hong Kong last year they used masks and lasers to counter police face-recognition equipment.
  • As surveillance in public places increases, countermeasures will grow more popular — think of them an incognito browser mode for the physical world.

We're beginning to turn surveillance technology on one another — with, for instance, parents and school systems wiring up kids in parole-style location trackers.

  • By putting this technology in the hands of youngsters and giving them an incentive to explore techniques for evading or defeating it, we're accelerating the process by which it will be redeployed in unpredictable ways.

Between the lines: Science fiction author William Gibson, who introduced the term "cyberspace" to the world back in 1981, defined it as "a consensual hallucination," an alternate reality composed of data "where the bank keeps your money."

  • Today, cyberspace and physical space intermingle, providing new opportunities for bad actors and new threats for the rest of us.
  • Gibson also famously wrote, "The street finds its own uses for things." Every new twist in surveillance is likely to inspire a new turn in countermeasures.

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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

For all the recent talk about using phone location data to track the progress of the coronavirus epidemic, experts say the data is more likely to bolster longer-term research than provide much immediate help, at least in the U.S.

Driving the news: A Washington Post report Monday suggested that talks between the federal government and Facebook, Google and other tech companies could harness location data anonymously to combat the virus. But any such efforts would face major technical, practical, legal and ethical hurdles.

The pandemic's coming health surveillance state

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

COVID-19 became a pandemic because too many of the countries struck by the virus failed to detect and suppress outbreaks as fast as possible. But the coronavirus could usher in an era of intense health surveillance.

Why it matters: From location-detecting smartphones to facial recognition cameras, we have the potential to track the spread of disease in near real-time. But the public health benefits will need to be weighed against the loss of privacy.

Go deeperArrowMar 21, 2020 - Health

Why the U.S. won't deploy high-tech coronavirus trackers

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Governments around the world have turned to high-tech solutions like smartphone tracking and Bluetooth bracelets to slow the novel coronavirus' spread. For both practical and cultural reasons, however, the U.S. is unlikely to try such methods.

The big picture: The U.S. plainly needs more tools for slowing the spread of COVID-19. But a lack of testing supplies, the absence of nationwide strategies and policies, an individualistic culture, and concerns over civil liberties all stand in the way of adopting these techniques.