The Real Reason We’re Losing our Privacy

“You don’t understand,” said the soldier who sat next me, who was speaking into his phone. His hand was shaking. “They’re dangerous. Really dangerous. You need to find somewhere safe! Go to your mother, and call me as soon as you get there.”

He hung up, and held the phone with both hands on his lap. I could see the beads of sweat forming on his forehead.

“Is everything OK? Is there something I can help with?” I asked politely.

He shot a frightened look toward me. “Did you hear what’s happening on LinkedIn?” he asked.

“A bit,” I said. “What, exactly? What did they do now?”

“It’s not what they did, it’s what was done to them,” he muttered, and buried his head between his hands. “Didn’t you hear that LinkedIn was hacked? One hundred and seventeen million encrypted user passwords are now being sold to anyone who can pay all of two thousand dollars for them, and I’ve heard that hackers who’ve scanned these encrypted passwords were able to decipher ninety percent of them. That means that over one hundred million user accounts are now hacked. What’s more, I’ve just returned from Afghanistan. Do you know what this means?”

“No,” I said. “What?”

“I fought the Taliban there, and now, they know who I am,” he muttered. “I had always worn a nametag on my uniform, and any Afghan wanting to take revenge on me will have already found my password. He’ll know where I live, based on the personal details in my account. They know who my wife is. They know how to get to our house!”

“Oh.” I said. “This is the world without privacy that we’re all afraid of. But it’s OK. They won’t find your wife.”

He looked up with a miserable glance. “Why not?”

“Because LinkedIn was already hacked once, four years ago, in 2012.” I explained. “They just didn’t understand how serious the problem was back then. They thought that only six and a half million passwords were stolen. Now, it turns out for all of that time, Russian hackers had all of those passwords, and although they really may have used them during that time – they might have already sold them to the Chinese, to ISIS, or to other centers of power – you can still set your mind at ease, provided that you changed your password.”

“Actually, I did,” he said. “In 2013, I think.”

“So you see? Everything’s OK,” I reassured him. “Or, in more exact terms, sufficiently OK, since this whole episode should teach us all an important lesson. Real privacy doesn’t exist any more. One of the more secured companies in the world was hacked, and this event wasn’t exposed for four years. Now, think about it, and tell me, yourself – what are the chances that some of the world’s databases hadn’t been hacked yet by the intelligence services of countries like Russia, China, or even the United States, working under the radar?”

He thought for a moment. “None?” he suggested.

“That’s what I think, too.” I said. “Hey, Snowden managed to steal enormous amounts of information from the National Security Agency of the United States, and no one was even aware that the information disappeared until he let the cat out of the bag himself. He was just one more citizen concerned about what this agency was doing. What are the chances that the Chinese haven’t managed to bribe other people at the agency to send them the information? Or that the United States hadn’t located its own agents in Russian or Chinese communities, or anywhere else in the world? Chances are that all of this information about us – not just passwords, but identifying particulars, residential addresses, and so on – are already in the hands of large governments around the world. And yes, ISIS may also have gotten its hands on it, though that’s a bit less likely, since they aren’t as technologically advanced. But one day, a Russian or Chinese Snowden will funnel all of this information to Wikileaks, and we’ll all know about everyone else.”

“But only within the period that information was gathered in,” he said.

“Right,” I answered. “That’s why I’m claiming that we’ve all lost our historical privacy. In other words, even if one day we enact new legislation to protect private information, a large portion of the information will already be circulating around the world, but it’s only valid during the period it was gathered in. It’s nearly certain that by today, various intelligence services can piece together impressive profiles of much of the world’s population, though they can only rely on the information gathered during that time. So even if ISIS managed to get its hands on those passwords, and even if they managed to hack your profile during the period between 2012 and 2013 and extract data about you without you knowing about it, the big question is if you were even married at the time.”

“Yup,” he said. “But I was married to my ex-wife, in a house I used to live in. Does this mean that ISIS could get to her?

“If all of these assumptions are true, then yes.” I said. “Maybe you should call her and warn her?”

He hesitated for a moment, and shrugged.

“It’s OK,” he said. “She’ll manage.”

 


 

This article was originally written by me in Hebrew, and translated and published at vpnMentor.

 

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Lessons from the Panama Papers

Welcome to the world without secrets.

We’ve all known for decades that politicians have used tax shelters for money laundering purposes, to avoid paying tax in their countries, and to avoid being identified with companies they were affiliated with in the past. Now the cat is out of the sack, with a new leak called The Panama Papers.

The Panama Papers contain about 11.5 million highly confidential documents that have detailed information about the dealings of more than 214,000 offshore companies. Such companies are most often used for money laundering and for obscuring connections between assets and their owners. Offshore companies are particularly useful to politicians, many of whom are required to declare their interests and investments in companies, and are usually required by law to forego any such relations in order to prevent corruption.

It doesn’t look like that law is working too well.

BBC News covered the initial revealings from the Panama Papers in the following words –

“The documents show 12 current or former heads of state and at least 60 people linked to current or former world leaders in the data. They include the Icelandic Prime Minister, Sigmundur Gunnlaugson, who had an undeclared interest linked to his wife’s wealth and is now facing calls for his resignation. The files also reveal a suspected billion-dollar money laundering ring involving close associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin.”

According to Aamna Mohdin, the Panama Papers event is the largest leak to date by a fair margin. The source, whoever that is, sent more than 2.6 terabytes of information from the Panama based company Mossack Fonseca.

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Source: Atlas.

 

What lessons can we derive from the Panama Papers event?

 

Journalism vs. Government

The leaked documents have been passed directly to one of Germany’s leading newspapers, Süddeutsche Zeitung, which shared them with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). Altogether, 109 media organizations in 76 countries have been analyzing the documents over the last year.

This state of affairs begs the question: why weren’t national and international police forces involved in the investigation? The answer seems obvious: the ICIJ had good reason to believe that suspected heads of states would nip such investigation in the bud, and also alert Mossack Fonseca and its clients to the existence of the leak. In other words, journalists in 76 countries worked in secrecy under the noses of their governments, despite the fact that those very governments were supposed to help prevent international tax crimes.

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Artificial Intelligence can Help Fight Corruption

The amount of leaked documents is massive. No other word for it. As Wikipedia details –

The leak comprises 4,804,618 emails, 3,047,306 database format files, 2,154,264 PDFs, 1,117,026 images, 320,166 text files, and 2,242 files in other formats.

All of this data had to be indexed so that human beings could go through it and make sense of it. To do that, the documents were processed using optical character recognition systems that made the data machine-readable. Once the texts were searchable, the indexing was essentially performed automatically, with cross-matching of important persons with the relevant data.

Could this investigative act have been performed without having state of the art computers and optical character recognition systems? Probably, but it would’ve required a small army of analysts and investigators, and would’ve made the challenge practically impossible for anything less than a governmental authority to look into the matter. The advance in computer sciences has opened the road for the public (in this case spearheaded by the International Journalists Consortium) to investigate the rich and the powerful.

 

Where’s the Missing Information?

So far, there has been no mention of any American politician with offshore connections to Mossack Fonseca. Does that mean the American politicians are all pure and incorruptible? That doesn’t seem very likely. An alternative hypothesis, proposed on EoinHiggins.com, is that certain geopolitical conditions have made it difficult for Americans to use Panama as a tax shelter. But don’t you worry, folks: other financial firms in several countries are working diligently to provide tax shelters for Americans too.

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These tax shelters have always drawn some of the ire of the public, but never in a major way. The public in many countries has never realized just how much of its tax money was being robbed away for the benefit of those who could afford to pay for such services. As things become clearer now and public outrage begins to erupt, it is quite possible that governmental investigators will have to focus more of their attention on other tax shelter businesses. If that happens, we’ll probably see further revelations on many, many other politicians in upcoming years.

Which leads us to the last lesson learned: we’re going into…

 

A World without Secrets

Wikileaks has demonstrated that there can no longer be secrets in any dealings between diplomats. The Panama Papers show that financial dealings are just as vulnerable. The nature of the problem is simple: when information was stored on paper, leaks were limited in size according to the amount of physical documents that could be whisked away. In the digital world, however, terabytes of information containing millions of documents can be carried in a single external hard drive hidden in one’s pocket, or uploaded online in a matter of hours. Therefore, just one disgruntled employee out of thousands can leak away all of a company’s information.

Can any information be kept secret under these conditions?

The issue becomes even more complicated when you realize that the Mossack Fonseca leaker seems to have acted without any monetary incentive. Maybe he just wanted the information to reach the public, or to take revenge on Mossack Fonseca. Either way, consider how many others will do the same for money or because they’re being blackmailed by other countries. Can you actually believe that the Chinese have no spies in the American Department of Defense, or vice versa? Do you really think that the leaks we’ve heard about are the only ones that have happened?

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Conclusions

The world is rapidly being shaken free of secrets. The Panama Papers event is just one more link in the chain that leads from a world where almost everything was kept in the dark, to a world where everything is known to everyone.

If you think this statement is an exaggeration, consider that in the last five years alone, data breaches at Sony, Anthem, and eBay resulted in the information of more than 300 million customers being exposed to the world. When most of us hear about data breaches like these ones, we’re only concerned about whether our passwords have found their way into hackers’ hands. We tend to forget that the hackers – and anyone who buys the information from them for a dime – also obtain our names, family relations, places of residence, and details about our lives in general and what makes us tick. If you still believe that any information you have online (and maybe on your computer as well) can be kept secret for long, you’re almost certainly fooling yourself.

As the Panama Papers incident shows, this forced transparency does not necessarily have to be a bad thing. It helps us see things for what they are, and understand how the rich and powerful operate. Now the choice is left to us: will we try to go back to a world where everything is hidden away, and tell ourselves beautiful stories about our honest leaders – or will we accept reality and create and enforce better laws to combat tax shelters?

 

Are we Entering the Aerial Age – or the Age of Freedom?

A week ago I covered in this blog the possibility of using aerial drones for terrorist attacks. The following post dealt with the Failure of Myth and covered Causal Layered Analysis (CLA) – a futures studies methodology meant to counter the Failure of Myth and allow us to consider alternative futures radically different from the ones we tend to consider intuitively.

In this blog post I’ll combine insights from both recent posts together, and suggest ways to deal with the terrorism threat posed by aerial drones, in four different layers suggested by CLA: the Litany, the Systemic view, the Worldview, and the Myth layer.

To understand why we have to use such a wide-angle lens for the issue, I would compare the proliferation of aerial drones to another period in history: the transition between the Bronze Age and the Iron Age.

 

From Bronze to Iron

Sometime around 1300 BC, iron smelting was discovered by our ancient forefathers, assumedly in the Anatolia region. The discovery rapidly diffused to many other regions and civilizations, and changed the world forever.

If you ask people why iron weapons are better than bronze ones, they’re likely to answer that iron is simply stronger, lighter and more durable than bronze. However, the truth is that bronze weapons are not much more efficient than iron weapons. The real importance of iron smelting, according to “A Short History of War” by Richard A. Gabriel and Karen S. Metz, is this:

“Iron’s importance rested in the fact that unlike bronze, which required the use of relatively rare tin to manufacture, iron was commonly and widely available almost everywhere… No longer was it only the major powers that could afford enough weapons to equip a large military force. Now almost any state could do it. The result was a dramatic increase in the frequency of war.”

It is easy to imagine political and national leaders using only the first and second layer of CLA – the Litany and the Systemic view – at the transition from the Bronze to the Iron Age. “We should bring these new iron weapons to all our soldiers”, they probably told themselves, “and equip the soldiers with stronger shields that can deflect iron weapons”. Even as they enacted these changes in their armies, the worldview itself shifted, and warfare was vastly transformed because of the large number of civilians who could suddenly wield an iron weapon. Generals who thought that preparing for the change merely meant equipping their soldiers with an iron weapon, found themselves on the battlefield facing armies much larger than their own, because of new conscription models that their opponents had developed.

Such changes in warfare and in the existing worldview could have been realized in advance by utilizing the third and fourth layers of CLA – the Worldview and the Myth.

Aerial drones are similar to Iron Age weapons in that they are proliferating rapidly. They can be built or purchased at ridiculously low prices, by practically everyone. In the past, only the largest and most technologically-sophisticated governments could afford to employ aerial drones. Nowadays, every child has them. In other words, the world itself is turning against everything we thought we knew about the possession and use of unmanned aerial vehicles. Such dramatic change – that our descendants may yet come to call The Aerial Age when they look back in history – forces us to rethink everything we knew about the world. We must, in short, analyze the issue from a wide-angle view, with an emphasis on the third and fourth layer of CLA.

How, then, do we deal with the threat aerial drones pose to national security?

 

First Layer: the Litany

The intuitive way to deal with the threat posed by aerial drones, is simply to reinforce the measures and we’ve had in place before. Under the thinking constraints of the first layer, we should basically strive to strengthen police forces, and to provide larger budgets for anti-terrorist operations. In short, we should do just as we did in the past, but more and better.

It’s easy to see why public systems love the litany layer, since these measures create reputation and generate a general feeling that “we’re doing something to deal with the problem”. What’s more, they require extra budget (to be obtained from congress) and make the organization larger along the way. What’s there not to like?

Second Layer: the Systemic View

Under the systemic view we can think about the police forces, and the tools they have to deal with the new problem. It immediately becomes obvious that such tools are sorely lacking. Therefore, we need to improve the system and support the development of new techniques and methodologies to deal with the new threat. We might support the development of anti-drone weapons, for example, or open an entirely new police department dedicated to dealing with drones. Police officers will be trained to deal with aerial drones, so that nothing is left for chance. The judicial and regulatory systems are lending themselves to the struggle at this layer, by issuing highly-regulated licenses to operate aerial drones.

 

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An anti-drone gun. Originally from BattelleInnovations and downloaded from TechTimes

 

Again, we could stop the discussion here and still have a highly popular set of solutions. As we delve deeper into the Worldview layer, however, the opposition starts building up.

Third Layer: the Worldview

When we consider the situation at the worldview layer, we see that the proliferation of aerial drones is simply a by-product of several technological trends: miniaturization and condensation of electronics, sophisticated artificial intelligence (at least in terms of 20-30 years ago) for controlling the rotor blades, and even personalized manufacturing with 3D-printers, so that anyone can construct his or her own personal drone in the garage. All of the above lead to the Aerial Age – in which individuals can explore the sky as they like.

 

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Exploration of the sky is now in the hands of individuals. Image originally from DailyMail India.

 

Looking at the world from this point of view, we immediately see that the vast expected proliferation of aerial drones in the near decade would force us to reconsider our previous worldviews. Should we really focus on local or systemic solutions, rather than preparing ourselves for this new Aerial Age?

We can look even further than that, of course. In a very real way, aerial drones are but a symptom of a more general change in the world. The Aerial Age is but one aspect of the Age of Freedom, or the Age of the Individual. Consider that the power of designing and manufacturing is being taken from nations and granted to individuals via 3D-printers, powerful personal computers, and the internet. As a result of these inventions and others, individuals today hold power that once belonged only to the greatest nations on Earth. The established worldview, in which nations are the sole holders of power is changing.

When one looks at the issue like this, it is clear that such a dramatic change can only be countered or mitigated by dramatic measures. Nations that want to retain their power and prevent terrorist attacks will be forced to break rules that were created long ago, back in the Age of Nations. It is entirely possible that governments and rulers will have to sacrifice their citizens’ privacy, and turn to monitoring their citizens constantly much as the NSA did – and is still doing to some degree. When an individual dissident has the potential to bring harm to thousands and even millions (via synthetic biology, for example), nations can ill afford to take any chances.

What are the myths that such endeavors will disrupt, and what new myths will they be built upon?

Fourth Layer: the Myth

I’ve already identified a few myths that will be disrupted by the new worldview. First and foremost, we will let go of the idea that only a select few can explore the sky. The new myth is that of Shared Sky.

The second myth to be disrupted is that nations hold all the technological power, while terrorists and dissidents are reduced to using crude bombs at best, or pitchforks at worst. This myth is no longer true, and it will be replaced by a myth of Proliferation of Technology.

The third myth to be dismissed is that governments can protect their citizens efficiently with the tools they have in the present. When we have such widespread threats in the Age of Freedom, governments will experience a crisis in governance – unless they turn to monitoring their citizens so closely that any pretense of privacy is lost. And so, it is entirely possible that in many countries we will see the emergence of a new myth: Safety in Exchange for Privacy.

 

Conclusion

Last week I’ve analyzed the issue of aerial drones being used for terrorist attacks, by utilizing the Causal Layered Analysis methodology. When I look at the results, it’s easy to see why many decision makers are reluctant to solve problems at the third and fourth layer – Worldview and Myth. The solutions found in the lower layers – the Litany and the Systemic view – are so much easier to understand and to explain to the public. Regardless, if you want to actually understand the possibilities the future holds in any subject, you must ignore the first two layers in the long term, and focus instead on the large picture.

And with that said – happy new year to one and all!

Forecast: In 2016, Terrorists Will Use Aerial Drones for Terrorist Attacks – But What Will Those Drones Carry?

A year ago I wrote a short chapter for a book about emerging technologies and their impact on security, published by Yuval Ne’eman Workshop for Science, Technology & Security and curated by Deb Housen-Couriel. The chapter focused on drones and the various ways they’re being used in the hands of criminals to smuggle drugs across borders, to identify and raid urban marijuana farms operated by rival gangs, and to smuggle firearms and lifestyle luxury items over prison walls. At the end of the paper I provided a forecast: drones will soon be used by terrorists to kill people.

Well, it looks like the future is catching up with us, since a report from Syria (as covered in Popular Mechanic) has just confirmed that ISIS is using small drones as weapons, albeit not very sophisticated ones. In fact, the terrorists are simply loading the drones with explosives, and trying to smash them on the enemy forces.

That, of course, is hardly surprising to anyone who has studied the use of drones by ISIS. The organization is drawing young and resourceful Muslims from the West, some of whom have expertise with emerging technologies like 3D-printers and aerial drones. These kinds of technologies can be developed today in the garage for a few hundred dollars, so it should not surprise anyone that ISIS is using aerial drones wherever it can.

The Islamic State started using drones in 2014, but they were utilized mainly for media and surveillance purposes. Drones were used to capture some great images from battles, as well as for battlefield reconnaissance. Earlier in 2015, the U.S. has decided that ISIS drones are important enough to be targeted for destruction, and launched an airstrike to destroy a drone and its operators. In other words, the U.S. has spent tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in ammunition and fuel for the most expansive and sophisticated aircraft and missiles in the world, in order to destroy a drone likely costing less than one thousand dollars.

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ISIS is using drones on the battlefield. Source: Vocativ

All of this evidence is coming in from just this year and the one before it. How can we expect drones to be used by terrorist organizations in 2016?

 

Scenarios for Aerial Drones Terrorist Attacks

In a research presented in 2013, two Dutch researchers from TNO Defence Research summed up four scenarios for malicious use of drones. Two of these scenarios are targeting civilians and would therefore count as terrorist attacks against unarmed civilians.

In the first scenario, a drone with a small machine gun is directed into a stadium, where it opens fire on the crowd. While the drone would most probably crash within a few seconds because of the backlash, the panic caused by the attack would cause many people to trample each other in their flight to safety.

In the second scenario, a drone would be used by terrorists to drop an explosive straight on the head of a politician, in the middle of a public speech. Security forces in the present are essentially helpless in the face of such a threat, and at most can order the politician into hiding as soon as they see a drone in the sky – which is obviously an impractical solution.

Both of the above scenarios have been validated in recent years, albeit in different ways. A drone was illegally flown into a stadium in the middle of a soccer game between Serbia and Albania. Instead of carrying a machine gun, the drone carried the national flag of Greater Albania – which one of the Serbian players promptly ripped down. He was assaulted immediately by the Albanian players, and soon enough the fans stormed the field, trampling over fences and policemen in the process.

 

The second scenario occurred in September 2013, in the midst of an election campaign event in Germany. A drone operated by a 23 years old man was identified taking pictures in the sky. The police ordered the operator to land the drone immediately, and he did just that and crashed the drone – intentionally or not – at the feet of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. If that drone was armed with even a small amount of explosives, the event would’ve ended in a very different fashion.

As you can understand from these examples, aerial drones can easily be used as tools for terrorist attacks. Their potential has not nearly been fulfilled, probably because terrorists are still trying to equip those lightweight drones with enough explosives and shrapnel to make an actual impact. But drones function just as well with other types of ammunition – which can be even scarier than explosives.

Here’s a particularly nasty example: sometime in 2016, in a bustling European city, you are sitting and eating peacefully in a restaurant. You see a drone flashing by, and smile and point at it, when suddenly it makes a sharp turn, dives into the restaurant and floats in the center for a few seconds. Then it sprays all the guests with a red-brown liquid: blood which the terrorists have drawn from a HIV-carrying individual. Just half a liter of blood is more than enough to decorate a room and to cover everyone’s faces. And now imagine that the same happens in ten other restaurants in that city, at the same time.

Would you, as tourists, ever come back to these restaurants? Or to that city? The damages to tourism and to morale would be disastrous – and the terrorists can make all that happen without resorting to the use of any illegal substances or equipment. No explosives at all.

 

Conclusion and Forecast

Here’s today forecast: by the year 2016, if terrorists have their wits about them (and it seems the ISIS ones certainly do, most unfortunately), they will carry out a terrorist attack utilizing drones. They may use the drones for charting out the grounds, or they may actually use the drones to carry explosives or other types of offensive materials. Regardless, drones are such an incredibly useful tool in the hands of individual terrorists that it’s impossible to believe they will not be used somehow.

How can we defend ourselves from drone terrorist attacks? In the next post I will analyze the problem using a foresight methodology called Causal Layered Analysis, in order to get to the bottom of the issue and consider possible solutions.

Till that time, if you find yourself eating in a restaurant when a drone comes in – duck quickly.

 

Worst-case Technological Scenarios for 2016: from A.I. Disaster to First DIY Pathogen

 

The futurist Ian Pearson, in his fascinating blog The More Accurate Guide to the Future, has recently directed my attention to a new report by Bloomberg Business. Just two days ago, Bloomberg Business published a wonderful short report that identifies ten of the worst-case scenarios for 2016. In order to write the report, Bloomberg’s staff has asked –

“…dozens of former and current diplomats, geopolitical strategists, security consultants, and economists to identify the possible worst-case scenarios, based on current global conflicts, that concern them most heading into 2016.”

I really love this approach, since currently many futurists – particularly the technology-oriented ones – are focusing mainly on all the good that will come to us soon enough. Ray Kurzweil and Tony Seba (in his book Clean Disruption) are forecasting a future with abundant energy; Peter Diamandis believes we are about to experience a new consumerism wave by “the rising billion” from the developing world; Aubrey De-Grey forecasts that we’ll uncover means to stop aging in the foreseeable future. And I tend to agree with them all, at least generally: humanity is rapidly becoming more technologically advanced and more efficient. If these upward trends will continue, we will experience an abundance of resources and a life quality that far surpasses that of our ancestors.

But what if it all goes wrong?

When analyzing the trends of the present, we often tend to ignore the potential catastrophes, the disasters, and the irregularities and ‘breaking points’ that could occur. Or rather, we acknowledge that such irregularities could happen, but we often attempt to focus on the good instead of the bad. If there’s one thing that human beings love, after all, it’s feeling in control – and unexpected events show us the truth about reality: that much of it is out of our hands.

Bloomberg is taking the opposite approach with the current report (more of a short article, really): they have collected ten of the worst-case scenarios that could still conceivably happen, and have tried to understand how they could come about, and what their consequences would be.

The scenarios range widely in the areas they cover, from Putin sidelining America, to Israel attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities, and down to Trump winning the presidential elections in the United States. There’s even mention of climate change heating up, and the impact harsh winters and deadly summers would have on the world.

Strangely enough, the list includes only one scenario dealing with technologies: namely, banks being hit by a massive cyber-attack. In that aspect, I think Bloomberg are shining a light on a very large hole in geopolitical and social forecasting: the fact that technology-oriented futurists are almost never included in such discussions. Their ideas are usually far too bizarre and alienating for the silver-haired generals, retired diplomats and senior consultants who are involved in those discussions. And yet, technologies are a major driving force changing the world. How could we keep them aside?

 

Technological Worse-Case Scenarios

Here are a few of my own worse-case scenarios for 2016, revolving around technological breakthroughs. I’ve tried to stick to the present as much as possible, so there are no scientific breakthroughs in this list (it’s impossible to forecast those), and no “cure to aging” or “abundant energy” in 2016. That said, quite a lot of horrible stuff could happen with technologies. Such as –

  • Proliferation of 3D-printed firearms: a single proficient designer could come up with a new design for 3D-printed firearms that will reach efficiency level comparable to that of mass-manufactured weapons. The design will spread like wildfire through peer-to-peer services, and will lead to complete overhaul of the firearm registration protocols in many countries.
  • First pathogen created by CRISPR technology: biology enthusiasts are now using CRISPR technology – a genetic engineering method so efficient and powerful that ten years ago it would’ve been considered the stuff of science fiction. It’s incredibly easy – at least compared to the past – to genetically manipulate bacteria and viruses using this technology. My worst case scenario in this case is that one bright teenager with the right tools at his hands will create a new pathogen, release it to the environment and worse – brag about it online. Even if that pathogen will prove to be relatively harmless, the mass scare that will follow will stop research in genetic engineering laboratories around the world, and create panic about Do-It-Yourself enthusiasts.
  • A major, globe-spanning A. disaster: whether it’s due to hacking or to simple programming mistake, an important A.I. will malfunction. Maybe it will be one – or several – of the algorithms currently trading at stock markets, largely autonomously since they’re conducting a new deal every 740 nanoseconds. No human being can follow their deals on the spot. A previous disaster in that front has already led in 2012 to one algorithm operated by Knight Capital, purchasing stocks at inflated costs totaling $7 billion – in just 45 minutes. The stock market survived (even if Knight Capital’s stock did not), but what would happen if a few algorithms go out of order at the same time, or in response to one another? That could easily happen in 2016.
  • First implant virus: implants like cardiac pacemakers, or external implants like insulin pumps, can be hacked relatively easily. They do not pack much in the way of security, since they need to be as small and energy efficient as possible. In many cases they are also relying on wireless connection with the external environment. In my worst-case scenario for 2016, a terrorist would manage to hack a pacemaker and create a virus that would spread from one pacemaker to another by relying on wireless communication between the devices. Finally, at a certain date – maybe September 11? – the virus would disable all pacemakers at the same time, or make them send a burst of electricity through the patient’s heart, essentially sending them into a cardiac arrest.

 

This blog post is not meant to create panic or mass hysteria, but to highlight some of the worst-case scenarios in the technological arena. There are many other possible worst-case scenarios, and Ian Perarson details a few others in his blog post. My purpose in detailing these is simple: we can’t ignore such scenarios, or keep on living our lives with the assumption that “everything is gonna be alright”. We need to plan ahead and consider worst-case scenarios to be better prepared for the future.

Do you have ideas for your own technological worst-case scenarios for the year 2016? Write them down in the comments section!

 

China is Implementing a Social Rating System

I loved her, on the spot. There was something in her stance, her walk, her voice. Hesitantly, I approached and opened a light chat. There was an immediate connection, a feeling of rapport between us. Finally, I dared pop the question – “Do you want to meet again tomorrow?”

She went quiet for a second, then asked to see my social credit rating. I tried to keep my face still while I took out my smartphone and showed it to her.

She went quiet for more than a few seconds…

 

This system – a social credit rating – is in the process of being created and implemented today in China. If it works out well, it’s going to have an impact that will spread far beyond the People’s Republic, and may become part of our lives everywhere. Because, you see, this system might actually be a good idea – as long as we use it wisely.

What is a social credit rating? In a way, it’s similar to the ordinary credit history rating being used in America and other countries. Every person in America, for example, has a credit history that speaks volumes about their past behavior, how soon they return their loans, and how they handle their money. When one applies for a new loan, a mortgage or even for a new credit card, the banks and financial institutes take a good hard look at the inquirer’s credit history to decide whether or not they can be safe giving him that loan.

Up until today, only 320 million individuals in China had any kind of credit history, out of 800 million people registered in China’s central bank. Things are about to change, though, since the Chinese government is authorizing several companies to collect and compare information about the citizens, thus creating an omnipotent, omniscient system that assigns a “social credit rating” to anyone who uses any kind of online services, including dating sites like Baihe, and commercial sites like Alibaba.

And the Chinese people are really gobbling it up.

While it’s obviously difficult to know how the common person in the street is responding, it looks like the Chinese companies (again, under close scrutiny and agreement by the government) really know how to sell the idea to their customers. In fact, they’re letting the customers ‘sell’ the idea themselves to their friends, by turning the social credit rating into a game. People are comparing their ratings to each other, and are showing their ratings on their smartphones and their profiles on dating services. For them, it has become a game.

But it is a game with very serious consequences.

Her face fell when she saw my rating. I talked quickly – “I-It’s not what it looks like. You gotta understand, I didn’t have the money to repay Big Joe last week, but now I’m getting all the wages I was owed. Seriously, it’s OK. I’m OK financially. I really am.”

 

There’s no denying that credit history ratings can serve a positive purpose. They alert individuals and companies to the past history of con artists, scammers and generally unscrupulous people whom you’d rather not have any dealings with. The mere presence of a credit history rating could cause people to trust each other better, and also to behave themselves in their financial dealings. People from market societies tend to deal more fairly with strangers because they know their actions are always counted for or against them. A credit history rating essentially makes sure that everyone knows they are monitored for best behavior – and that’s a powerful force that can help maintain civil order.

It is also a powerful tool in the hands of a government that wants to control its citizens.

She bit her bottom lip, and her brow furrowed. She kept my smartphone in her hand, scrolling down quickly and reading all the fine details. Suddenly she raised her head and stared at me.

“You played Assassin’s Creed for one hundred hours last month?” she demanded to know. I nodded dumbly, and watched as the smile spread slowly on her lips. “I love that game! I play it all the time myself!”

I felt butterflies swimming across my vision. She was obviously The One for me. Such a perfect fit could never happen by chance. And yet, I felt I needed to check one last thing.

“Can I see your social rating too?” I asked timidly, and waited an eternity for her answer.

It’s pretty easy to understand how one’s credit history rating in America is determined. You just need to pay your bills in time in order to maintain a good credit history. A social credit rating, however, is a different thing altogether. At least one of the companies in charge of calculating it, does not agree to expose how the rating is determined, except that the calculation is based on “complex algorithm”. Which essentially means that nobody knows exactly how they’re being judged and rated – except for the big companies and the government.

Does that make you feel like the Chinese are entering into an Orwelian totalitarian rule? It should. There are persistent rumors that the Chinese social credit will be determined according to the users’ online activities in social media. When the Chinese government is in total control, who do you think will get a better social rating: the citizens who support the government unconditionally, or the dissidents who oppose the government’s doings?

In short, a social rating could be a great way for any government to control the population and the opinions and points of view it advocates and stands for. And since the social rating could be a dynamic and constantly changing parameter, it could change rapidly according to every new action a person takes, every sentence and cussword they utter. The government only has to set the rating algorithms – and the automated monitoring and rating systems will do the rest.

I walked back and forth in my small room, silently cursing myself for my foolishness. So what if her social rating was so low? She must have been a supporter of the opposition for it to drop by so much, but what of it? I’m not a political activist anyway. Why should I care?

And yet, I had to admit to myself that I cared. How could I go out with someone with that kind of a low rating? All my friends will know. They’ll laugh at me behind my back. Worse still, my own social rating would go down immediately. I will not only be the laughing stock of my class in the University – I would not even be legible anymore for a scholarship, and all my dreams for a higher degree would end right there and then.

I sighed, and sat back on the squeaky bed. She just wasn’t right for me, in this time in life. Maybe when I have a better social rating, to balance her own. Maybe the algorithms would change their decision about her someday.

But that would probably be too late for us.

 

The social rating system is currently voluntary, but within five years China is planning to rank everyone within its borders. It’s going to be interesting to see how it’s working out for the Chinese. And who knows? Maybe we’ll get to have a taste of the system as well, probably sooner than later. Whether that’s a good or bad thing, is still up to grabs.

What Happens When You Go into a Dispute with Fiverr? Or: the Future of Justice Systems

Last week, Yam Mesicka from Israel ordered a cover photo for his web site from a Fiverr seller. He requested that the gig be done in 24 hours, asked for the PSD file, and added a few other extras for a final bill of $80. Yam then sat back and relaxed, knowing that in 24 hours he will receive what he has paid for.

Twenty four hours later, he was still waiting. Agitated and under time pressure, he considered cancelling his order, but found out he could only do that after 48 hours had passed. So he waited some more, and on the 47th hour, he received the finished product, which was extremely shoddy and amateurish in his view.

Yam told the seller he wanted a refund. The seller did not consent. Yam turned to Fiverr for help, and after four days was told that he should ask the seller to cancel the deal. He explained to the representative that he tried to reason with the seller to no avail, at which point she patiently encouraged him to continue negotiating.

That was the point when Yam broke down and realized the salvation was not going to come from Fiverr’s management. Instead, he turned to the PayPal account from which he was supposed to pay the bill, and opened a dispute with Fiverr, explaining that they did not give him the return for his money. A short time later, he received a mail from Fiverr telling him that his Fiverr account was now blocked, and asking him to cancel the dispute. In other words, Fiverr was essentially trying to force Yam’s hand in a dispute he had against a single seller, which Fiverr’s representative allegedly refused to solve herself.

Yam’s story is still developing, and Fiverr has not replied to my request that they comment on it. But there is at least one lesson we can learn from it, about the future of justice systems in the world and how citizens turn from governmental justice systems – i.e. courts – to commercial ones owned and operated by big companies.

Justice Systems

In modern society, the government is the main source of justice, with appointed judges supplying justice to all who come before them. The only problem is that the system isn’t really working for most cases of civil disputes. The justice system has turned into a complex monstrosity of rules, laws, rulings and lawyers who can navigate the system for exorbitant fees. Rebecca Lova Kourlis, a former justice of the Colorado Supreme Court, describes the situation best in her own words in The Atlantic –

 “…let’s say your teenage daughter gets into a car crash with an uninsured motorist. She is badly injured and has to have shoulder surgery that eliminates her ability to get that tennis scholarship to college — and now you must pay for the car, the medical bills, and college. You need to sue the uninsured driver. It’s likely, however, that the costs of the litigation will exceed your losses — and even more likely that it will take years to resolve the case. Too often today, the last place to go for actual justice is civil court.

The problem is doubly obvious in Yam’s case, and generally for every commercial company that sells its services to millions of customers at the same time, like Amazon, eBay, Fiverr and others. The courts simply cannot provide an answer to the millions of citizens who want to get a relatively small refund, or some other compensation for unsatisfactory services. And so, the large companies have opened dispute resolution centers of their own, and those are taking care of millions of disputes every year.

But what happens when a customer is unhappy with a certain dispute’s resolution?

This, in essence, is Yam’s case. Being unsatisfied with the way the dispute was being handled by Fiverr, he turned to PayPal’s dispute resolution system. In other words, he tried to switch from one commercial justice system to a competing one.

Is it really so surprising that Fiverr refused to acknowledge the authority of PayPal’s dispute resolution system? Of course not. Let’s be honest: companies want to keep their customers’ disputes to themselves, and it’s perfectly understandable why Fiverr won’t accept PayPal’s dispute resolution process. All the same, since PayPal controls the money transfer, Yam may even get his money back from Fiverr.

And all throughout this story, the governmental justice system is nowhere to be found.

This is a sign of the things to come. As I mentioned before, the current governmental justice system is quite simply incapable of taking care of most of citizens’ civil disputes. In its place come the commercial justice systems, whose rules are not necessarily dictated by governments, morals or ethics. In fact, there is nearly no real supervision by governments on commercial justice systems.

You may side with the seller in Yam’s story, or with Fiverr, or even with Yam himself. The side you choose to take are beside the point. The real story here is that the execution of justice is rapidly being relegated to commercial companies, each of which with its own unsupervised justice system. And some of which – like Fiverr – are apparently willing to ban you from their services if you turn to justice systems other than its own.

Does that scare you yet? If not, just consider what happens if Google decides to ban you from using your Gmail mailbox just because you opened a dispute with it. A relatively small number of incredibly large companies are controlling our virtual platforms. They are gaining power rapidly while the government loses power, and people like Yam are caught in between. And there’s no dispute about that.

Gun Control for Mass-Shootings Soon to be Useless

Today, a 26 years old gunman opened fire at Oregon’s Umpqua Community College, killing at least ten people and injuring seven others. President Obama, a longtime opponent of the gun industry, immediately responded by issuing a fierce speech promoting gun regulation. While I do support a certain amount of gun regulation, it seems to me that Obama is still trying to lock the barn’s doors, long after the horses have escaped. Why am I saying that? Because even today, any person with a spare $1,000 in their bank account, would be able to print a gun for themselves.

You’ve probably heard before about 3D-printing. If you haven’t, you must’ve been hiding in a very deep cave with no WI-FI. The most simple and cheapest 3D-printers basically consist of a robotic arm that injects thin layers of plastic one on top of the other, according to a schematic that you can download from the internet. In that way, any user can print famous historical statues, spare parts for your dish washer, or a functional gun.

How easy is it to use a 3D-printer to print a gun? Much easier than it should be. When I was in Israel, I used a 3D-printer that cost approximately $1,500, in an effort to print a gun. I searched for the schematics that the Defense Distributed group devised and uploaded to the internet, and downloaded the files in less than two minutes from Pirate Bay. The printing itself took some time, and it took me some effort to stitch all the parts together, but in less than 48 hours I held in my hands a functional ghost gun of my own.

A 3D-printed gun. Credit goes to Kamenev.
A 3D-printed gun. Credit for this image and the upper one goes to Kamenev.

Why is it called a ghost gun? Because this gun is untraceable: it’s not registered anywhere, and it has no serial number. As far as the government knows, this gun does not even exist. And I could print as many guns as I wanted, with no one being the wiser. Heck, I could stockpile them in my house for emergencies, or give them out to militias and rebel groups.

The only problem is that the printed gun I downloaded is near useless. It has a recorded tendency to explode in your hands, and is not accurate at distances of more than two meters. Obviously, it is not a fully automatic or even a semiautomatic firearm. In short, I could just as well use a metal tube with gun powder at one end, and a stone stuck at the other. So yeah, it was a pretty lousy gun, back in 2013.

But now we’re getting near the end of 2015, and things have been changing rapidly.

Consider that the original schematics for the 3D-printed gun have been downloaded more than 100,000 times in just a few days after its release to the public. Since it is open source, everyone and anyone could make changes to the schematics, leading to a wide variety of daughter-schematics, that some of them are improved versions of the first clunky gun. Combine that with the elevated capabilities of today’s printers, and the many improvements that lie in store for us, and you’ll realize that in five years from now, gun control at sales venues will be largely useless, since people will be able to print sophisticated firearms in their households.

Disarming the Future

Does that mean we should cut short any efforts for gun control in the present? Absolutely not. America is suffering from an epidemic of mass-shootings, partly because anyone can get himself or herself a deadly weapon with minimal background checks. At the same time, however, we should keep an eye out for technologies that disrupt the current gun industry, and which bring the power to manufacture firearms to the layperson.

How do we deal with such a future – which is probably a lot closer to becoming the present than most people suspect?

Here’s one answer for you: it turns out that the Oregon shooter has left a message on a social media forum this morning, warning some people not to come to school tomorrow. I’m not sure this message is the real deal, but we do know that people who commit mass-shootings leave behind evidence of their intentions in the virtual world.

Consider the following, just as anecdotes –

  • Eliot Rodger killed seven people in a mass-shooting in California. His Youtube videos pretty much state in advance what he was going to do.
  • Terence Tyler, an ex-marine who was suffering from depression, killed two of his co-workers and himself in a supermarket. Sometime before the incident he posted “Is it normal to want to kill your all your co-workers?” on Twitter twice.
  • Jared Loughner killed six people and wounded fourteen. Diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, he wrote “Please don’t be mad at me” in Myspace, and took photos of himself with his trusty rifle in the morning of the shooting.

These are obviously just anecdotes, but they serve to highlight the point: everyone, even mass-killers, want to be noticed, to deliver their message to the public, or to share their intimate thoughts and anguish. Their musings, writings and interactions can all be found in the virtual world, where they are recorded for eternity – and can be analyzed in advance by sophisticated algorithms that can detect potential walking disasters.

While this sentence is rapidly becoming cliché, I must say it again: “This is NOT science fiction”. Facebook is already running algorithms over every chat, and is looking for certain dangerous phrases or keywords that could indicate a criminal intent. If it discovers potential criminals, Facebook alerts the authorities. Similarly, Google is scanning images sent via Gmail to identify pedophiles.

Obviously, identifying individuals that answer to the right (or very wrong) combination of declarations, status in life and other parameters could be a complicated task, but we’re starting at it today – and in the long run, it will prove to be more effective than any gun control regulation we can pass.

And so, here’s my forecast for the day: ten years from now, the president of the United States will stand in front of the camera, and explain that he needs the public’s support in order to pass laws that will enable governmental algorithms to go automatically and constantly over everyone’s information online – and identify the criminals in advance.

The alternative is that this future president won’t even ask for permission – and that should frighten us all so much more.

Why School Bullying Is About to Disappear

Cody Pines is a hero, no doubt about it. When a high school bully physically assaulted his blind classmate last week, Pines was the only one of the surrounding people to actually leap forward and try to stop the fight. Admittedly his methods were somewhat harsh (he smashed the attacker to the ground with one punch), but it’s difficult not to cheer for him when watching the movie. It takes courage to act, when everybody else is just watching or making a Youtube movie.

That said, this incident is just a reminder of what’s going on in our school system. We usually don’t see what’s happening during the break, when all the pupils are playing outside the classroom. However, as I think anyone who’s ever been to a school can testify, there are plenty and plenty of fights, bullying, hair-pulling and other violent acts. And if you want to see the statistics, here are a few data points, straight from the CDC and the U.S. Department of Justice –

  • In 2011, an astounding number of 597,500 students aged 12 – 18 in the U.S. were victims of violence at school. In 2012, this number rose to 749,200
  • In 2011, 18% of students reported that there are gangs in their school.
  • In 2013, in a nationally representative survey of students in grades 9 – 12, more than eight percent reported that they were involved in a physical fight in school during last year. More than seven percent mentioned that they missed one day or more of school because they were afraid for their safety. And a whopping number of 19.6% reported being bullied in school.

Those numbers mean that students in school experience or witness fights almost constantly. That’s not surprising, of course: taking hormonally-charged teenagers, forcing them to interact with each other, and then making them stay together in the same class or school is a recipe for frustrations, anger and even violence. Basically, we’re expecting kids to play Survivor or Big Brother without resorting to violence, when even adults are known to lose their calm in such environments. What did you expect would happen?

In the headline of this article I claimed that school bullying is about to disappear, but now’s the time to admit that this forecast is only half-true. I sternly believe that physical bullying is about to go down radically in this decade and the next, while bullying of all the other sorts – such as virtual bullying and non-violent bullying in general will remain the same or even increase.

Here’s why: we’re going into a new world – the Monitored World.

The Monitored World

We are rapidly becoming surrounded by sensors. Nearly all of us, in fact, have at least five sensors in our pockets, in the shape of a smartphone. These sensors include a gyroscope, an accelerometer, a recorder, a GPS, and perhaps most importantly: a camera. Suddenly, we are all able to record whatever we see out there, and using Youtube we can share our findings with the entire world.

As of 2014, according to Pew Research Center, 64% of all American adults own a smartphone. While I have not been able to find similar statistics for youths, it seems likely that a large part of them own a smartphone as well, or will own a cheap (but functional!) one in the coming years, as prices keep going down.

In this sort of environment, any irregular activity will be immediately shared with the online audience, and will be judged accordingly. That is the public’s justice system: fully operated by the public, which is a judge, a jury and occasionally a hangman as well. Such a justice system, however, only takes note when the incident is truly extraordinarily cruel – as in the case of the blind child being beaten up. Only in such cases will the clip become viral, create a public uproar and force the authorities into action.

This is the state of things today. But how will sensors look like in five, ten or even fifteen years from now? They will be smaller, cheaper, and much more abundant. In fact, several large firms like Bosch, HP and Intel forecast that sometime between 2017 and 2022, we will have a trillion sensors in the world, which is about one hundred times the number of sensors we have today.

T Sensors forecast
The Trillion Sensors Vision. Image originally from Motherboard

What will those sensors look like? The short answer is that we won’t really notice them or think about them anymore, simply because they’ll be everywhere. They will be in our shoes and in our shirts. We’ll find them on our skins as electronic tattoos (of the kind that are being in development today) and on our eyes as the new versions of Google Glass. They’ll sit on our fingers as rings and measure our heart rate, our perspiration level and the activity we’re involved in right now. And where do you think all of the data being monitored by these devices will be sent to?

Let me answer this question with a short story about the future. Your son has just been physically bullied in school. His sensors immediately alerted you that he’s in pain and was involved in a fight, and you made a call to the school to let them know that. And as every angry dad should, you also let them know that if it happens again and they don’t break the fight early enough – you’re going to sue them for negligence. And if they do fight, you’ll know it immediately.

Now what do you think the school is going to do? Some schools will separate the two kids for good, which is hardly practical. Other schools will make the angry father understand that they can’t be responsible for everything that’s happening on their property – and then they should be willing to defend that position in court. And other schools – the ones in Silicon Valley, most probably – will take an altogether different approach and require the students to share their sensors data with the school system, to be monitored constantly by an artificial intelligence that will alert a teacher on the spot when young hearts start pumping too strongly.

These new school systems will monitor their students at all times. And why shouldn’t they? Most schools are treating the children as prisoners in any case: forced to sit for hours upon hours in one room, hearing content they don’t want to learn. When schools are required to safeguard the children from violence, do you really think they’ll care for their privacy?

Will all bullying disappear altogether? Obviously, it won’t. Some forms of bullying will become virtual, and happen in closed groups where the teachers won’t be able to discern it. Other forms of bullying – for example, when a group of popular kids excommunicate a certain student – will not be stopped so easily.

All the same, the Monitored World will largely bring an end to physical bullying… and along with it, will bring an end to kisses stolen in the dark, to young (and too young) lovers in the school’s basement, to the smoking of pot and many other unsanctioned acts. That is the meaning of the Monitored World: a world in which we must think carefully of the rules that we set to people and to students, because they will be enforced constantly.

Is that a good thing, or a bad one? The jury is still out on that, but at least we won’t have blind students being punched in the school halls.