Cybercrime Will Get Much Worse, Expert Says


AUSTIN, TEXAS — You already know that cybercriminals can hijack your computer, steal your bank account and spy on your personal correspondence. What you might not know is that what's coming next may make that behavior look downright uninspired. According to one expert, cybercrime is only going to get more sophisticated in the years to come, and the proposed solutions might be almost as radical as the problems.

Independent cybersecurity consultant and recently published author Marc Goodman yesterday (March 14) hosted a panel called "Future Crimes from the Digital Underworld" here at SXSW 2015, in which he laid out current problems with cybersecurity and how those problems are poised to only worsen over time. Goodman said that as technology advances at the pace predicted by Moore's Law — which accurately states that the processing power of computer chips doubles every 18 months — so too can criminal masterminds who take advantage of such tech.

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First and foremost, there's big money in cybercrime: approximately $400 billion per year, according to Goodman. In comparison, antivirus software is about a $94-billion-per-year industry, and most antivirus software can only detect and repel about 5 percent of the really insidious programs out there, Goodman said.

Increasing availability of contraband on the Internet is a problem as well. Visit the aptly named "Dark Web," and you can find narcotics, firearms, child pornography and even hit men. Making transactions on the Dark Web does require a little discretion and expertise, but it's hardly impossible: The U.S. government, Goodman said, estimates that 20 percent of all illegal narcotics sales last year happened on the Silk Road black-market website, whose founder was recently convicted.

Another thing criminals can pick up on the online black market is crimeware: a standardized set of malware tools such as browser exploit kits, which bombard Web browsers with different kinds of malware until something gets through and infects a computer. Goodman explained that in Brazilian favelas, crimeware like the Blackshades remote-access tool is sold on CD-ROMs. Professional crimeware even comes with customer support to ensure that scammers can get their programs to run properly.

Drone aircraft are another facilitator of illegal activities. Forget about hacking computers; consumer drones are easy to fly and hard to detect. Enterprising criminals have used drones to traffic drugs over prison walls and detect unusual heat signatures emitted by marijuana-growing operations in apartment buildings. (Oddly enough, Goodman said, criminals use drones to find marijuana farms more often than cops do, as criminals can then target the apartment for theft.)

The Internet of Things is also ripe for exploits, from pet tech to medical implants. Pacemakers, insulin dispensers and bionic limbs now often connect to the Internet; if a product has an operating system, Goodman said, it can be hacked. There's admittedly not much money to be made by sending someone's pacemaker out of control, but the results could be suitably deadly.

The purpose of the talk was not to spread fear, however, and Goodman proposed some potential solutions. Law enforcement needs to revise its protocols for the 21st century; a cop in New York has no way to pursue a cybercriminal in Russia, and that's a problem, Goodman said.

Computer gamers, too, might be able to play a part. When scientists let gamers play with proteins, they discovered how to fold them in novel conformations; likewise, Goodman said he believes gamers could be trained to detect malware as part of a gameplay experience.

Finally, Goodman advised that the U.S. government get involved in cybersecurity in a serious way. President Obama made only a passing reference to it in his most recent State of the Union, but what the country needs, Goodman argued, was an initiative on par with the Manhattan Project or an Apollo 11. By dedicating meaningful time and resources to it, he said, the U.S. could become a much safer place online.

Marshall Honorof is a senior writer for Tom's Guide. Contact him at Follow him @marshallhonorof. Follow us @tomsguide, on Facebook and on Google+.