‘Future Crimes’, by Marc Goodman

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Marc Goodman started out in the world of high-tech law enforcement with just one qualification: he was a rare example of a cop in the Los Angeles Police Department of the mid-1990s who knew how to use a spell check. As hackers honed their skills, agents with little or no technology experience were having to dive into the underworld to catch up with them.

Since then, Goodman has worked for the FBI, the UN and Interpol, advising on how to protect the public from the organised criminals who were early adopters of technology that can be used in anything from cyber attacks and terrorism to murder and rape. If you are excited by the potential of drones, robotics and synthetic biology, he will be able to tell you exactly what could go wrong.

In Future Crimes, Goodman spills out story after story about how technology has been used for illegal ends, from the Vietnamese gang that was able to buy the personal data of two-thirds of all Americans to a suspected Chinese state-sponsored attack in which confidential aircraft designs were stolen from the US military. His predictions are often depressingly plausible. Today, for example, we have Cryptolocker software that encrypts data on computers until the user pays a ransom in bitcoin; tomorrow, Goodman suggests, the same tactic could be used on a connected home with a smart door lock to prevent a resident returning — or, worse still, on an internet-connected medical device such as a pacemaker that could be tampered with to kill someone from afar.

Future Crimes argues that most people are far too trusting of information presented on screen. In California, 450 convicts were released from jail after a system error, while in the UK police computers wrongly branded 20,000 innocents as criminals. For Goodman, blind faith in computers could lead to the manipulation of everything from airport scanners to electronic voting.

The author ends with a series of recommendations that, while ambitious, appear sensible and constructive. Software providers should be held liable for vulnerabilities in their products, thus providing an incentive for improvements in security and larger bug bounties for hackers who discover problems. Companies could replace ineffective passwords with better systems such as multi-factor authentication, as well as rolling out encryption by default so as to ensure that data passed over the web cannot be read by anyone other than the intended recipient.

Goodman argues that consumers are paying for services they think are free — from Google to Facebook — with their personal data. To reclaim their privacy, he writes, they should start paying in dollars rather than data, as it is all too easy for the vast troves of personal information held by internet companies to fall into the wrong hands.

Perhaps the most difficult obstacle in policing online crime is just how international it is — bytes can fly across national borders in seconds. “As prescient as the signatories to the Treaty of Westphalia were in 1648, none of them foresaw Snapchat,” he jokes. Better funding, recruitment of hacker types to law enforcement and an equivalent of a World Health Organisation for ensuring basic “cyber hygiene” are among his suggestions.

Goodman’s most promising idea is the creation of a “Manhattan Project” for cyber security — a well-funded team of international experts with the potential to secure more than just a temporary advantage in the battle against the criminals. At present, research on cyber security threats is divided between a large number of small companies, secret services and law enforcement agencies, which have different motives and frequently do not share information.

Goodman describes Future Crimes as a “rough ride” — and with some justice. But in an area where criminals profit from the ignorance of the general public, it is a ride well worth taking if we are to prevent the worst of his predictions from taking shape.

Future Crimes: A Journey to the Dark Side of Technology — and How to Survive It, by Marc Goodman, Bantam Press, RRP£20/Doubleday, RRP$27.95, 464 pages

Hannah Kuchler is the FT’s San Francisco correspondent

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