Tag Archives: hacking

Surveillance. Are we defenseless?

Recent advancements in AI that are increasing exponentially (in areas such as facial recognition) demonstrate a level of sophistication in surveillance that renders most of us indefensible. There is a new transparency, and virtually every global citizen is a potential microbe for scrutiny beneath the microscope. I was blogging about this before I ever set eyes on the CBS drama Person of Interest, but the premise that surveillance could be ubiquitous is very real. The series depicts a mega, master computer that sees everything, but the idea of gathering a networked feed of the world’s cameras and a host of other accessible devices into a central data facility where AI sorts, analyzes and learns what kind of behavior is potentially threatening, is well within reach. It isn’t even a stretch that something like it already exists.

As with most technologies, however, they do not exist in a vacuum. Technologies converge. Take, for example, a recent article in WIRED about how accurate facial recognition is becoming even when the subject is pixelated or blurred. A common tactic to obscure the identity of video witness or an innocent bystander is to blur or to pixelate their face; a favored technique of Google Maps. Just go to any big city street view and Google has systematically obscured license plates and faces. Today these methods no longer compete against state-of-the-art facial recognition systems.

The next flag is the escalating sophistication of hacker technology. One of the most common methods is malware. Through an email or website, malware can infect a computer and raise havoc. Criminals often use it to ransom a victim’s computer before removing the infection. But not all hackers are criminals, per se. The FBI is pushing for the ability to use malware to digital wiretap or otherwise infiltrate potentially thousands of computers using only a single warrant. Ironically, FBI Director James Comey recently admitted that he puts tape over the camera on his personal laptop. I wrote about this a few weeks back What does that say about the security of our laptops and devices?

Is the potential for destructive attacks on our devices is so pervasive that the only defense we have is duct tape? We can track as far back as Edward Snowden, the idea that the NSA can listen in on your phone even when it’s off. And since 2014, experts have confirmed that the technology exists. In fact, albeit sketchy, some apps purport to do exactly that. You won’t find them in the app store (for obvious reasons), but there are websites where you can click the “buy” button. According to the site Stalkertools.com, which doesn’t pass the legit news site test, (note the use of awesome) one these apps promises that you can:

• Record all phone calls made and received, hear everything being said because you can record all calls and even listen to them at a later date.
• GPS Tracking, see on a map on your computer, the exact location of the phone
• See all sites that are opened on the phone’s web browser
• Read all the messages sent and received on IM apps like Skype, Whatsapp and all the rest
• See all the passwords and logins to sites that the person uses, this is thanks to the KeyLogger feature.
• Open and close apps with the awesome “remote control” feature
• Read all SMS messages and see all photos send and received on text messages
• See all photos taken with the phone’s camera

“How it work” “ The best monitoring for protect family” — Yeah. Sketchy.
“How it work” “ The best monitoring for protect family” — Sketchy, you think?

I visited one of these sites (above) and, frankly, I would never click a button on a website that can’t form a sentence in English, and I would not recommend that you do either. Earlier this year, the UK Independent published an article where Kelli Burns, a mass communication professor at the University of South Florida, alleged that Facebook regularly listens to users phone conversations to see what people are talking about. Of course, she said she can’t be certain of that.

Nevertheless, it’s out there, and if it has not already happened eventually, some organization or government will find a way to network the access points and begin collecting information across a comprehensive matrix of data points. And, it would seem that we will have to find new forms of duct tape to attempt to manage whatever privacy we have left. I found a site that gives some helpful advice for determining whether someone is tapping your phone.

Good luck.

 

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The end of code.

 

This week WIRED Magazine released their June issue announcing the end of code. That would mean that the ability to write code, as is so cherished in the job world right now, is on the way out. They attribute this tectonic shift to Artificial Intelligence, machine learning, neural networks and the like. In the future (which is taking place now) we won’t have to write code to tell computers what to do, we will just have to teach them. I have been over this before through a number of previous writings. An example: Facebook uses a form of machine learning by collecting data from millions of pictures that are posted on the social network. When someone loads a group photo and identifies the people in the shot, Facebook’s AI remembers it by logging the prime coordinates on a human face and attributing them to that name (aka facial recognition). If the same coordinates show up again in another post, Facebook identifies it as you. People load the data (on a massive scale), and the machine learns. By naming the person or persons in the photo, you have taught the machine.

The WIRED article makes some interesting connections about the evolution of our thinking concerning the mind, about learning, and how we have taken a circular route in our reasoning. In essence, the mind was once considered a black box; there was no way to figure it out, but you could condition responses, a la Pavlov’s Dog. That logic changes with cognitive science which is the idea that the brain is more like a computer. The computing analogy caught on, and researchers began to see the whole idea of thought, memory, and thinking as stuff you could code, or hack, just like a computer. Indeed, it is this reasoning that has led to the notion that DNA is, in fact, codable, hence splicing through Crispr. If it’s all just code, we can make anything. That was the thinking. Now there is machine learning and neural networks. You still code, but only to set up the structure by which the “thing” learns, but after that, it’s on its own. The result is fractal and not always predictable. You can’t go back in and hack the way it is learning because it has started to generate a private math—and we can’t make sense of it. In other words, it is a black box. We have, in effect, stymied ourselves.

There is an upside. To train a computer you used to have to learn how to code. Now you just teach it by showing or giving it repetitive information, something anyone can do, though, at this point, some do it better than others.

Always the troubleshooter, I wonder what happens when we—mystified at a “conclusion” or decision arrived at by the machine—can’t figure out how to make it stop arriving at that conclusion. You can do the math.

Do we just turn it off?

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Powerful infant.

In previous blogs (such as this one), I have discussed the subject of virtual reality. Yesterday, I tried it. The motivation for my visit to The Advanced Computing Center for the Arts and Design (ACCAD), Ohio State’s cutting-edge technology and arts center, was a field trip for my junior Collaborative Studio design students. Their project this semester is to design a future system that uses emerging technologies. It is hard to imagine that in the near-future VR will be commonplace. We stepped inside the a large, empty performance stage rigged with a dozen motion capture cameras that could track your movements throughout virtual space. We looked at an experimental animation in which we could stand amidst the characters and another work-in-progress that allowed us to step inside a painting. It wasn’t my first time in a Google cardboard device where I could look around at a 360-degree world (sensed by my phone’s gyroscope), but on an empty stage where you could walk amongst virtual characters, the experience took on a new dimension—literally. I found myself concerned about bumping into things that weren’t there and even getting a bit dizzy. (I did not let on in front of my students).

I immediately saw an application for The Lightstream Chronicles and realized that I could load up one of my scenes from the graphic novel, bring it over to ACCAD’s mocap studio and step into this virtual world that I have created. I build all of my scenes (including architecture) to scale, furnish the rooms and interiors and provide for full 360º viewing. Building sets this way allows me to revisit them at any time, follow my characters around or move the camera to get a better angle without having to add walls that I might not have anticipated using. After the demo, I was pretty excited. It became apparent that this technology will enable me to see what my characters see, and stand beside them. It’s a bit mind-blowing. Now the question becomes which scene to use. Any ideas?

Clearly VR is in its infancy, but it is a very powerful infant. The future seems exciting, and I can see why people can get caught up in what the promises could be. Of course, I have to be the one to wonder at what this powerful infant will grow up to be.

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Harmless.

 

Once again, it has been a week where it is difficult to decide what present-future I should talk about. If you are a follower of The Lightstream Chronicles, then you know I am trying to write about more than science fiction. The story is indeed a cyberpunk-ish, crime-thriller, drama intended to entertain, but it is also a means of scrutinizing a future where all the problems we imagine that technology will solve often create new ones, subtle ones that end up re-engineering us. Many of these technologies start out a curiosities, entertainments, or diversions that are picked-up by early-adopting technophiles and end up, gradually in the mainstream.

One of these curiosities is the idea of wearable tech. Wristbands watches and other monitors are designed to keep track of what we do, remind us to do something, or now in increasing popularity, remind us not to do something. One company, Chaotic Moon is working on a series of tattoo-like monitors. These are temporary, press-on circuits that use the conductivity of your skin to help them work and transmit. They are called Tech Tats and self-classified as bio-wearables. In addition to their functional properties, they also have an aesthetic objective—a kind of tattoo. Still somewhat primitive (technologically and artistically) they, nevertheless, fall into this category of harmless diversions.

techtats
Monitoring little Susi’s temperature.

Of course, Chaotic Moon is hoping (watch the video) that they will become progressively more sophisticated, and their popularity will grow from both  as both tech and fashion. Perhaps they should be called bio-fashion. If no one has already claimed this, then you saw it here first, folks. If you watch the video from Chaotic Moon you’ll see this promise that these things (in a future iteration) will be used for transactions and should be considered safer than carrying around lots of credit cards. By the way, thieves are already hacking the little chip in your credit card that is supposed to be so much safer than the old non-chipped version. Sorry, I digress.

My brand of design fiction looks at these harmless diversions and asks, “What next?”, and “What if?”. I think most futurists agree that these kinds of implants will eventually move inside the body through simple injections or, in future versions, constructed inside via nanobots. Under my scrutiny, two interesting things are at work here. First there is the idea of wearing and then implanting technology which clearly brings us across a transhuman threshold, and the idea of fashion as the subtle carrier of harmlessness and adoptive lure. You can probably imagine where I’m going with that.

Next up is VR. Virtual reality is something I blog about fairly often. In The Lightstream Chronicles, it has reached a level of sophistication that surpasses game controllers boxes and hardware. You simply dial in your neocortex to the Lightstream, (the future Internet) and you are literally wherever you want to be and doing whatever your imagination can conjure up.  In the story, I more or less predict that this total immersion becomes seriously addictive. Check out the prologue episodes to Season 4.

Thanks to one of my students for pointing out this video called the Uncanny Valley.

“I feel like I can be myself and not go to jail for it.”
“I feel like I can be myself and not go to jail for it.”

You can watch it on Vimeo. Chat up the possible idea of any detrimental effects of video games with a gamer and you’ll almost certainly hear the word harmless.

These are the design futures that I think about. What do you think?

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Anticipation. Start by working with the future.

 

 

A couple of blogs ago I wrote about my experiment with the notion of ubiquitous surveillance. I chose this topic because in many ways surveillance is becoming ubiquitous. It is also the kind of technology that I see as potentially the most dangerous because it is slow and incremental and it grows through convergence.

Technological convergence is the idea that disparate technologies sometimes merge with, amplify and/or enfold other technologies. An example often cited is the smartphone. At one time its sole purpose was to make phone calls. Meanwhile other technologies such as calculators, cameras, GPS devices, and video players were each separate devices. Gradually, over time, these separate technologies (and many more) converged into a single hand-held device, the smartphone. Today we have a smartphone that would blow the doors off of a laptop from 15 years ago. The downside to technological convergence (TC) is that these changes can be very disruptive to markets. If you were in the business of GPS devices a few years ago you know what this means.

TC makes change much more rapid and more disorderly. Change becomes unpredictable.

The same concept can be applied to other technological advancements. Biotech could merge capabilities with nanotechnology. Robotics could incorporate artificial intelligence. Nanotech for example could enable many of the technologies formerly in our devices to be implanted into our bodies.

Google’s Chief of Tech and noted futurist Ray Kurzweil is a someone I follow. Not just because he’s brilliant, nor because I agree with his aspirations for future tech, but because he’s often right with his predictions; like 80% of the time. According to Peter Diamandis for singularityhub.com,

“’In the 2030s,” said Ray, ”we are going to send nano-robots into the brain (via capillaries) that will provide full-immersion virtual reality from within the nervous system and will connect our neocortex to the cloud. Just like how we can wirelessly expand the power of our smartphones 10,000-fold in the cloud today, we’ll be able to expand our neocortex in the cloud.”

I’ll let you chew on that for a few sentences while I throw out another concept. Along with all of these “technologies” that seem to be striving for the betterment of humankind, there are more than a few disruptive technologies that are advancing equally as fast. We could toss surveillance, hacking, and terrorism into that pot. There is no reason why these efforts cannot be advanced and converged at an equally alarming and potentially unpredictable rate. You can do the math.

Should that keep us from moving forward? Probably not. But at the same time, maybe we should start thinking about the future as something that could happen instead of something impossible?  

More to think about on a Friday afternoon.

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The killer feature for every app.

I have often asked the question: If we could visit the future “in-person” how would it affect us upon our return? How vigorously would we engage our redefined present? Part of the idea behind design fiction, for me, is making the future seem real enough to us that we want to discuss it and ask ourselves is this the future we want. If not, what can we do about it, how might it be changed, refined, or avoided altogether? In a more pessimistic light, I also wonder whether anything could be real enough to rouse us from our media-induced stupor. And the potion is getting stronger.

After Monday and Tuesday this week I was beginning to think it would be a slow news week in the future-tech sector. Not so. (At least I didn’t stumble on to them until Wednesday.)

1. Be afraid.

A scary new novel is out called Ghost Fleet. It sounds immensely entertaining, but also ominously possible. It harkens back to some of my previous blogs on autonomous weapons and the harbinger of ubiquitous hacking. How am I going to get time to read this? That’s another issue.

2. Play it again.

Google applied for this years ago, but their patent on storing “memories” was approved this week. It appears as though it would have been a feature for the ill-fated Google Glass but could easily be embedded in any visual recording function from networked cameras to a user’s contact lens. Essentially it lets you “play-back” whatever you saw, assuming you are wearing or integrating the appropriate recording device, or software. “Siri, replay my vacation!” I must admit it sounds cool.

Ghost Fleet, Google memories, uber hacking, Thync.
Ghost Fleet, Google memories, uber hacking, and Thync.

3. Hack-a-mania.

How’s this for a teaser? RESEARCHERS HACKED THE BRAKES OF A CORVETTE WITH TEXT MESSAGES. That’s what Fast Company threw out there on Wednesday, but it originated with WIRED magazine. It’s the latest since the Jeep-Jacking incident just weeks ago. See how fast technology moves? In that episode the hackers, or jackers, whatever, used their laptops to control just about every technology the Jeep had available. However, according to WIRED,

“…a new piece of research suggests there may be an even easier way for hackers to wirelessly access those critical driving functions: Through an entire industry of potentially insecure, internet-enabled gadgets plugged directly into cars’ most sensitive guts.”

In this instance,

“A 2-inch-square gadget that’s designed to be plugged into cars’ and trucks’ dashboards and used by insurance firms and trucking fleets to monitor vehicles’ location, speed and efficiency.”

The article clearly demonstrates that these devices are vulnerable to attack, even in government vehicles and, I presume the White House limo as well. You guys better get to work on that.

4. Think about this.

A new $300 device called Thync is now available to stick on your forehead to either relax or energize you through neurosignaling, AKA  electricity, that zaps your brain “safely”. It’s not unrelated to the less sexy shock therapy of ages past. Reports tell me that this is anything but all figured out, but just like the above list, it’s just a matter of time until it escalates to the next level.

So what ties all these together? If we look at the historical track of technology, the overarching theme is convergence. All the things that once were separate have now converged. Movies, texts, phone calls, games, GPS, bar-code scanning, cameras and about a thousand other technologies have converged into your phone or your laptop, or tablet. It is a safe bet to see that this trend will continue, in addition to getting smaller and eventually implanted. Isn’t technology wonderful?

The only problem is that we have yet to figure out the security issues. Do we, for one moment, think that hacking will go away? We rush new apps and devices to market with a “We’ll fix that later,” mentality. It’s just a matter of time until your energy, mood, “memories”, or our national security are up for grabs. Seems like security ought to be on the feature list of every new gadget, especially the ones that access out bodies, our safety, or our information. That’s pretty much everything, by the way. The idea is especially important because, let’s face it, everything we think is secure, isn’t.

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