Technological threats have well and truly permeated the public consciousness. Hollywood feeds us up a steady diet of machines taking over the world and at airports we’re confronted with billboards that make online perils seem like a version of Hunger Games. But technological developments mean we are about to become a lot more familiar with cyber threats and will have to confront a new range of challenges and opportunities.
Today, we are fortunate that no one on earth has ever had an acquaintance relate the shocking death of a friend or relative as a result of a cyber attack. That’s because so far, no one has actually died in this way. But we have come close on several occasions. There have been attacks on factories and oil refineries that could have turned deadly. Russia was caught shutting down part of Ukraine’s power grid that could have indirectly injured or killed someone depending on the power supply. Luckily, they didn’t. But that luck is unlikely to hold. Several states already have the capability to cause a deadly attack and many a terrorist group no doubt wishes they had.
A large proportion of the Australian population will have had an encounter with an online threat. Be it the theft of their identity, theft via their credit card, cyber bullying or the disabling of their laptop from ransomware.
While all these things can be extremely frustrating or hurtful, they have still not been sufficiently grave for us to get exercised enough to demand radical change to existing ways of doing things. Politicians have certainly been out there warning of the dangers and developing strategies to respond but at the end of the day, cyber threats have remained an issue at the edges of the political debate. That is about to change.
Depending on the model of car you drive now, you may already be familiar with the advanced state of driverless car technology. For those who haven’t yet seen it in action, you are no doubt familiar with the driverless car trials taking place around the world, including here in Australia. We are right on the cusp of having these cars deployed en masse to our streets.
Other large physical systems are also being connected to the internet. Factories that have long used technology to create more efficient processes are now rapidly connecting to the internet. Aeroplanes too are joining the rush. In fact, almost anything you can think of is rapidly being connected be it your fridge, toaster, shower or smart meter.
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In risk terms, that is a big shift. While potential harms have been increasing as we’ve become more connected and the data on our phones and devices has become more critical and important, we are about to enter the next level of risk. Cars, factories and aeroplanes that are connected to the internet present a very different threat to laptops and phones. State actors have already demonstrated their preparedness to attack factories where there was a risk to human life, so we have to assume that it is only a matter of time before one of these attacks turns deadly.
For policy makers and politicians, that presents a very different set of challenges. If there is a threat to people’s personal safety, even if it remains unlikely in the grand scheme of things, people will demand politicians act. Air travel is one of the safest ways to move around the planet, but the discovery of any potential flaw in an aircraft model can spark global commotion. A deadly cyberattack on a car or an aeroplane, even if it occurred outside Australia, would spark similar levels of concern.
Despite the inevitability of these and other new technologies being ubiquitously deployed, indications at this stage are that we are not prepared or optimally mitigating the risks. The way cars, planes and factories are being connected to the internet is largely following the same pattern we saw play out with phones and laptops: connect first, deal with security flaws later. As we all know, that didn’t deliver the type of security anyone would want to depend on.
Of course, the connection of these large physical systems to the internet is just one of many new technical developments underway. There are multiple disruptors bearing down upon us. Machine learning and the slower burn, artificial intelligence, will disrupt the way we work and live. Quantum computing promises to crack previously impossibly difficult problems and 5G will transform our economies.
With all these new technologies, there are risks. But there are also incredible opportunities, many of which we are still yet to grasp. For everyone, there is the promise of cures for previously unsolved medical conditions and new conveniences. For entrepreneurs, there will be countless new businesses to found, built on the back of these technologies.
While the promise is great, we need to get better at getting ahead of the risks. If we can do that, managing the great transition underway will become a lot easier.
Fergus Hanson is the Director of ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre.