COLUMN: Trust a huge casualty in cyberspace

For more than a decade, we’ve been on the front lines of an invisible war, an escalating war of terror going on behind our computer screens

By STEVE KIDD

For more than a decade, we’ve been on the front lines of an invisible war, an escalating war of terror going on behind our computer screens as “black hat” hackers and manufacturers of security software battle for control of our computers and our minds.

It used to be we only had to worry about hackers getting into mainframe computers – “the big iron” as it used to be referred to – belonging to banks or governments and having some innocent fun poking around, perhaps indulging in the odd innocent prank, like making an ATM spit out $20,000 onto the street or starting a Third World War.

Well, those hackers grew up and innocent fun turned into organized crime. Computers themselves left the tech geek-only world and became everyday home appliances.

That’s when the viruses and worms – the whole range of malware – became an issue for the rest of us, with hackers using e-mail and other nefarious means to sneak little bundles of code onto your computer that might do anything from simply wiping your hard drive to stealing your personal information or turning your computer into a zombie for the hacker’s spam e-mail network.

It was also when the makers of anti-virus and security software came to our rescue with programs to combat the hackers’ little bundles of joy. The hackers, in turn, upped the ante by creating code that was increasingly harder to detect and eradicate. And so, the war has raged on to this very day.

That was OK, when the battle was contained on our computers. But then we all decided to get smart phones, and the hackers started to move in on all these new sub-computer devices – well, at least that’s what some companies say; the companies that profit by selling you software to prevent attacks.

Sure, I can see there might be some interest from the criminal element in hacking smart phones, but the dire predictions of antivirus software makers have yet to materialize.

And no, I am not complacently ignoring the problem of malware, even if I am a Mac user (20 years of owning Macs, one virus infection; smiling smugly). Sure, you need an antivirus program on your computer, but people are the most common way computers get viruses – like when you say yes when a virus asks for permission to install itself, open mysterious e-mail attachments, etc.

So you won’t be surprised that I was incensed when I received a ‘study’ from  a prominent anti-virus maker warning of the dangers of computer systems in cars becoming smart enough to be infected by computer viruses or open to other hacks.

My eyes must be going. It wasn’t there when I looked at the report a second time, but I could have sworn that the report’s title was “new ways to drive software sales with fear.”

Computers in cars have gone far beyond computer chips monitoring engine efficiency. Some new cars have the ability to be remotely started by a mobile phone, using a WiFi connection from the car.

Other conveniences like the ability to open doors remotely date back even farther, and cars in the future are likely to have many more embedded electronic systems.

That leads to a dire warning contained in the report. “As the popularity of these personalized connected systems increases, so does the need for security.”

OK, with parts of your car sending messages to other parts of the car, those connections need to be secure.

But the likelihood of a hack that would penetrate the systems? Only if my car starts opening “A happy birthday message for you” e-mails or cruising shady porn sites when I lock it up alone in the garage at night.

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Steve Kidd is a reporter with the Penticton Western News, a Black Press newspaper.