Cyberspace expert warns of digital infiltration
Published: Tuesday, April 17, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, April 17, 2012 02:04
Attendees of this week’s Global Agenda lecture were warned to be wary of information harvesting, even while launching birds and crushing pigs on their cellphones.
Melissa Hathaway, a former senior director for cyberspace in the National Security Council who has worked under the presidential administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, documented the promises and perils of advanced digital technology as part of the Center for Political Communication’s lecture series on Wednesday night in Mitchell Hall .
“There are certain things we are downloading these days that we don’t even think twice about,” Hathaway said. “When I’m teaching at [a] university I talk about Angry Birds […] everybody loves to play it and it gets downloaded often. Nobody knows if that’s a back door into your system. I can imagine a clever criminal actually designing an application that would go viral on the internet, so everybody would want to download it, just to get access to your computer and harvest your passwords.”
While she used Angry Birds simply as an example and did not say the program carries specific risks, the potential for people to design applications for sinister means exemplified what she called “proximity access.”
“If I have the appropriate device, I could probably steal everything off it in a minute or two,” Hathaway said. “Why would I do that? […] Some of you might have your passwords on it. Increasingly, you have your banking data and credit card, so I want to steal that data. Many of those devices are not protected, because we haven’t designed them as such.”
For senior Lauren Unger, who attended the lecture, the speaker’s Angry Birds example was the most memorable.
“One thing that really stuck out was that we’ve been going through these phases where there’s these programs everyone finds really addicting […] where they can get into your phone and get information from your phone,” Unger said. “I thought that was really interesting because it gave me a whole different perspective on programs and who’s creating them.”
Hathaway charted the rise of the Internet, from its birth in 1969 as a way for the military to communicate in the event of a nuclear attack, to its transformation into a part of daily life. She likened increased Wi-Fi capabilities to the works of a popular poet.
“We have more affordable Wi-Fi […] you can find it in the library, you can find it in Starbucks, you can find it almost anywhere,” Hathaway said. “It’s almost a Dr. Seuss [poem]. I can find it here, I can find it there, I can find it anywhere.”
But with increased technology, she said, comes legitimate risks and concerns.
“We have opted into this technology, we developed this technology,” Hathaway said. “We have embedded this technology in every part of our life, and we’ve put every part of our United States infrastructure into that Internet.”
Hathaway’s second example of digital fraud includes risks that come from who she calls “the insider.” She discussed WikiLeaks and Bradley Manning, a soldier who was arrested in 2010 under suspicion for making classified information pubic.
She said Manning asked for and was given permission to bring a DVD to work, where he was guarding sensitive data, under the guise of listening to music. Instead, the writeable disc was soon packed full of information about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, among other topics.
“That resulted in transmissions and a big leak of classified material, restricted access material,” Hathaway said. “Two hundred and fifty thousand diplomatic cables, and actually quite embarrassing for the United States.”
Hathaway also discussed the ability of other common technologies, such as E-ZPass, and how they might be utilized by law enforcement in the future.
“If we were to want to, we could use E-ZPass as that proximity to your car and log you and see if you’re going 65 miles per hour on 95 or […] or faster, and log you from tollbooth to tollbooth,” she said. “In other countries, you automatically get a [speeding] ticket. I can imagine something like that could be put in place here, as well.”
Senior Brittany Drazich was one of the students that dined with Hathaway as a part of the Global Agenda course before her speech. Over dinner, Hathaway discussed her own online security habits.
“What was interesting for her is that she considers herself a lot more paranoid about Internet theft than the average Joe,” Drazich said. “For instance, she said she doesn’t do any online checking.”
Drazich said she expects she was not the only person to rethink his or her own habits after hearing Hathaway speak.
“I think that definitely everyone that she talked to at the lecture went home and checked their Facebook privacy settings, including myself,” she said. “She made us all more paranoid about who can see what.”