Avoiding the Dark Security Future

LAS VEGASNick Percoco has been thinking a lot about the future of technology, and some of the things he’s dreamed up aren’t very pretty: farms of people renting out their spare brain cycles, autonomous cars that freak out and careen into oncoming traffic and hacking groups hijacking users’ augmented reality gear and demanding ransoms to unlock them.

That’s a fairly dark, dystopian view of what’s awaiting us in the coming decades, but it’s not necessarily the way that Percoco believes it has to be. Rather, he believes there’s plenty of time, talent and technology available to solve the fundamental security and reliability problems that could lead to that dim future. Percoco, a security researcher and vice president of strategic services at Rapid 7, said that the brighter, technologically slick future he imagined as a young boy first learning about computers is still a possibility.

“Technology is advancing faster than our ability to secure it.”

“Technology is advancing faster than our ability to secure it and it’s going to be impacting our lives in a more personal way in the near future,” he said at the DigiCert Security Summit here Friday. “There was no darkness to it when I was eight. The first technology I was exposed to was a car phone. Then I started trying to convince my parents to get accounts on BBS systems, and they were like, why do we need email? There was no notion of lawful interception or of someone hacking into my email and sending my friends malware.”

As a kid, Percoco was fascinated by the Horizons ride at Epcot at Walt Disney World, a sort of Jetsons-like trip through the technology of tomorrow, offering multiple different visions of the future. The ride was an 1980s era look at what the future might hold, and Percoco began to consider recently what it might look like if they built it from scratch now. What would the future technology be like?

Going through the thought exercise decade by decade, Percoco imagined an “elastic transportation” system in the 2020s that would be a kind of combination of autonomous cars and the Uber service. An on-demand self-driving transport system. A decade later might see the advent of an automated physician’s assistant that can diagnose minor illnesses and prescribe drugs, a sort of computerized minute clinic. Later, in the 2040s, an advanced version of Google Glass technology combined with a system that can communicate directly with users’ brains appears. And by the 2060s humans have figured out a method for renting out their spare brain capacity to accomplish tasks while they’re sleeping. This leads to mind farms of slaves being exploited for the mind’s power.

But, technology being what it is, each of these systems contains a fatal flaw. The transportation system occasionally blue screens and drives into oncoming traffic. The physician’s assistant system misdiagnoses a woman as being pregnant way past term and orders an emergency C-section. And hackers discover methods for hijacking the mind farms, causing widespread fatalities.

Not a pleasant vision.

“That’s one path we could go down, and if you think about the technology we’re developing today, we are sort of going that way,” he said. “We really need more people thinking about the security issues. It’s getting more people used to securing their own devices.”

One way to do that is to start the process at the beginning, getting kids excited about the possibilities that security and technology offer.

“If you plant the seeds early of taking kids to a hacker con today and they get something out of that, what will they be like in thirty years?” Percoco said. “By avoiding these things, maybe we can have only a slightly dark future. It’ll never be totally shiny, but it will help.”

Image from Flickr photos of Joe

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