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When hacking could enable murder

Story highlights

  • Cyberthreats are changing; data theft such as the Sony hack are not the worst
  • Bruce Schneier: When we get driveless cars and connected medical devices, security risks will increase

Bruce Schneier is a security technologist and chief technology officer of Resilient Systems Inc. His latest book is "Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World." He blogs at schneier.com and tweets @schneierblog. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Cyberthreats are changing. We're worried about hackers crashing airplanes by hacking into computer networks. We're worried about hackers remotely disabling cars. We're worried about manipulated counts from electronic voting booths, remote murder through hacked medical devices and someone hacking an Internet thermostat to turn off the heat and freeze the pipes.

The traditional academic way of thinking about information security is as a triad: confidentiality, integrity and availability. For years, the security industry has been trying to prevent data theft. Stolen data is used for identity theft and other frauds. It can be embarrassing, as in the Ashley Madison breach. It can be damaging, as in the Sony data theft. It can even be a national security threat, as in the case of the Office of Personal Management data breach. These are all breaches of privacy and confidentiality.
    Bruce Schneier
    As bad as these threats are, they seem abstract. It's been hard to craft public policy around them. But this is all changing. Threats to integrity and availability are much more visceral and much more devastating. And they will spur legislative action in a way that privacy risks never have.
    Take one example: driverless cars and smart roads.
    We're heading toward a world where driverless cars will automatically communicate with each other and the roads, automatically taking us where we need to go safely and efficiently. The confidentiality threats are real: Someone who can eavesdrop on those communications can learn where the cars are going and maybe who is inside them. But the integrity threats are much worse.
    Someone who can feed the cars false information can potentially cause them to crash into each other or nearby walls. Someone could also disable your car so it can't start. Or worse, disable the entire system so that no one's car can start.
    This new rise in integrity and availability threats is a result of the Internet of Things. The objects we own and interact with will all become computerized and on the Internet. It's actually more complicated.
    What I'm calling the "World Sized Web" is a combination of these Internet-enabled things, cloud computing, mobile computing and the pervasiveness that comes from these systems being always on all the time. Together this means that computers and networks will be much more embedded in our daily lives. Yes, there will be more need for confidentiality, but there is a newfound need to ensure that these systems can't be subverted to do real damage.
    It's one thing if your smart door lock can be eavesdropped to know who is home. It's another thing entirely if it can be hacked to prevent you from opening your door or allowing a burglar to open the door.
    In separate testimonies before different House and Senate committees last year, both the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and NSA Director Mike Rogers warned of these threats. They both consider them far larger and more important than the confidentiality threat and believe that we are vulnerable to attack.
    And once the attacks start doing real damage -- once someone dies from a hacked car or medical device, or an entire city's 911 services go down for a day -- there will be a real outcry to do something.
    Congress will be forced to act. They might authorize more surveillance. They might authorize more government involvement in private-sector cybersecurity. They might try to ban certain technologies or certain uses. The results won't be well-thought out, and they probably won't mitigate the actual risks. If we're lucky, they won't cause even more problems.
    I worry that we're rushing headlong into the World-Sized Web, and not paying enough attention to the new threats that it brings with it. Again and again, we've tried to retrofit security in after the fact.
    It would be nice if we could do it right from the beginning this time. That's going to take foresight and planning. The Obama administration just proposed spending $4 billion to advance the engineering of driverless cars.
    How about focusing some of that money on the integrity and availability threats from that and similar technologies?