The Dark(er) Side: Hacking to Kill

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A geeky dude tip-taps away at a laptop for x minutes. Unknown numbers scroll up and down. He types in a username and a password, and viola: access granted. The US Department of Defense falls in 10 seconds to a guy in a Tshirt. Sounds familiar? Yes, it does. It happens all the time. From the ancient Wargaming to Facebook and The girl with the Dragon Tattoo, hackers have been central to some of the biggest movies of all time. Oh, and let’s not forget The Matrix. We all know what hacking is – at least, from the Hollywood perspective.

But real life is much scarier. Lulzsec took down the entire Playstation Network, causing tremendous financial damage to Sony: the Stuxnet work hits nuclear reactors (imagine the fallout from one of those). Now even more disturbing news has come to light: hacking pacemakers. A pacemaker is a tiny device that keeps poorly functioning hearts working; they do this by delivering a serious of minute electrical shocks at carefully timed intervals. Lots of patients who have undergone heart surgery end up with one of these. They’re tiny, dumb and ….also deadly when hacked into, as IOPoint researcher Barnaby Jack demonstrated at the Melbourne BreakPoint security conference. Jack demonstrated that he could hack into one of these pacemakers from 30 feet away, sending fatal shocks into the patient’s heart. He could even overwrite the firmware on the pacemaker – and all this using just the pacemaker’s ID.

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This is the same guy who showed that crooks could force ATMs to withdraw free cash.

Techcrunch reports that he’s working on a GUI program that can complete this deadly operation with just a few clicks. That’s a mass murder weapon right there. From Jack’s viewpoint, device manufacturers are to blame for not making pacemakers secure enough. Be glad that this guy is on “our” side: he’s one of the world’s “white hat” hackers who break stuff to help expose security flaws.

Startling? Definitely. Even if you don’t have a pacemaker, take a step back and look around. How many electronic devices do we use each and every day? TV’s are everywhere. We store our most personal data on smartphones, connecting using networks and devices that are no more secure than a paper jacket. Our cars (hybrids, anyone) are almost completely electronically-controlled. A hacker doesn’t have to break into the Department of Defense or damage pacemakers when they can easily nuke almost every aspect of our modern lives. We’re not talking about the “my Facebook account was hacked” syndrome that your friend suffers from: things like those are easily done to careless users.  We’re talking about breaking into things without anyone even being aware of it.

Wipe your smartphone? Easy.  Hack into your contacts? Make nonstop prank calls? Livestream pornography onto your TV?  Lock up your car? It’s been done. There’s even a record of hackers altering tyre pressure at high speeds. Imagine losing all tire pressure at 100 km/h.  You’re kebab. Add to that the usual credit card fraud, phishing scams, local DDoS hits and coordinated mega-attacks like the one on Sony and you’re good to go.

Hackers are not a relic of the 90’s, nor are they Hollywood actors. Hacking is big business in the world. With the growth of the Internet, the internet is open to all kinds of remarkable hackers with sometimes bizarre agendas (such as British hacker Gary MacKinnon, who broke into US Military systems to search for UFO’s).  In real life, the good guys don’t always win. Bruce Willis doesn’t show up to take down the Big Bad Hackers. In real life, when you do get hacked, it’s too late.

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