Hacked to death

Computer technologies have obviously brought about huge changes and benefits to everyday life, but we are continually reminded of the potential, and in some cases actual downside of the mis(use) of these digital technologies, and our growing reliance on them. A prime downside example being the privacy infringement stories that have almost become daily news. The fallout of the mobile phone hacking revelations in the UK continue to reverberate.

We have been aware of the activities of computer hackers and their desire to illicitly break into computer systems for many years. The mobile phone hacking story was just one variant of such activities. Yesterday’s New York Times ran an interesting article that highlights that the hacking of computer systems is entering the stage of it being a life and death issue. (I would add that whilst phone hacking may not have directly put lives at risk, it clearly caused huge mental distress and indirectly could be seen to put lives at risk).

The article in the New York Times by Nick Bilton – Disruptions: As New Targets for Hackers, Your Car and Your House, takes a look at the growing risk of the hacking of home and car computer systems. In our digital homes of the future Bilton points out that burglars may no longer need conventional lock-picks and crowbars, instead using laptops and WI-FI scanners.

Whilst we can envisage clear potential personal risks when our fully automated homes have their systems hacked – utility systems shut down for example, it is in respect to the hacking of car computer systems that an even clearer danger to life can be seen. It is often said that a single modern car contains more computing power than was used to put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon in 1969. Currently whilst cars may contain between 10 and 40 little computers, there are only very limited ways a hacker may attack a car, but as cars become ever more digitised and reliant on computer technology the clear danger is that for example key systems such as braking could be hacked with devastating consequences. An interesting question for motor manufacturers and indeed any manufacturer whose system is hacked, may be their possible legal responsibility under product liability laws for any damage that occurs.

The Bilton article mentions that the so-called ethical hacker, Barnaby Jack, who passed away a few weeks ago, was due to demonstrate at the Black Hat computer security conference in Las Vegas how implantable medical devices such as heart pacemakers could be hacked in order to kill a person. This reminded me of a presentation I attended a couple of years ago that was given by American lawyer, Karen Sandler. Karen, who herself as a wireless pacemaker because of a heart condition, argued that because of the use of proprietary software by the pacemaker manufacturers (product liability issue again?) there was the potential for a malicious hack to occur that would switch off her pacemaker. According to a recent entry on her blog – GNOMG, it was her advocacy on this issue that in part led Barnaby Jack to begin his research into the hacking of medical devices.

Without doubt this is an issue we are likely to be hearing a lot more about in the future. 

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