Between Safety and Suitability - The New Indian Express

Between Safety and Suitability

Published: 27th April 2014 06:00 AM

Last Updated: 25th April 2014 02:50 PM

The fourth season of the popular TV show, Game of Thrones has debuted on HBO this month. The official promotional poster put out by HBO to announce the season had a single line on it which pretty much captures the essence of the show. It says, ‘All Men Must Die’. Based on a series of books by George R R Martin, the story only gets more heart-wrenching as it gets more complex. In many ways this could be an allegory to today’s world.

The 22nd century’s act of terrorism would be remotely crashing millions of autonomous cars together.

Today’s technologies are fickle. A smartwatch would have been considered revolutionary today could be considered old technology within two months. As the world gets more demanding for fast technological advancements, it is facing up to a compromise between convenience and safety. Kurt Baumgartner, a researcher at the digital security firm Kaspersky Lab, put it eloquently when he said to The New York Times, “I’m not sure there’s any other industry that handles as much change and as much usage in such a short amount of time.”

It was not always like this. For example, industries like aviation, automobiles or healthcare have gone through decades of slow product cycles to achieve reliable, sophisticated products of today that don’t cost human lives. This speed of technological adoption meant industries that did not rely much on technology before are being forced to adopt very quickly without much thought for safety. Like an army that has spread itself too thin too quickly, this fast expansion is opening security holes that are becoming impossible to monitor. This has been amply demonstrated in two of the biggest security breaches of recent times.

The first was the breach at the huge American retailer Target in which millions of credit card details of its shoppers were stolen with a single hack.Target is a very big retailer and has a good IT team and very robust IT security infrastructure. The hack did not come from there. It came from a small privately held firm of around 125 employees in Pittsburgh called Fazio Mechanical Services Inc., which was the refrigeration contractor for Target. Since it was linked to Target’s computer network for ‘electronic billing, contract submission and project management’, all the hackers had to do was send a phishing email to the small firm with its weak IT security, get its user IDs and use them to get into Target’s systems.

The second was the Heartbleed ‘bug’. On the New Year’s eve 2011, a German software developer Robin Seggelman was working on the open-source OpenSSL protocol which is the security protocol that powers most of the Internet. He did a simple one-line coding error. ‘Missed validating a variable containing a length’ in coder speak. This left a gaping security hole in OpenSSL which would have given hackers access to the server keys of websites like

Facebook and Gmail. It went unnoticed for two years, until a Google engineer Neel Mehta discovered it. Since then it has been a mad scramble for the Internet to change the locks on its doors before someone gets in. Luckily this one time, nothing major has happened. At least at the time of writing.

Here lies the problem. As technologies grow and expand into every facet of life, simple errors could prove very costly. For now we are safe. Until the next breach. And the next and the next. The 22nd century’s act of terrorism would be remotely crashing millions of autonomous cars together. We are all characters in a real life Game of Thrones. The knife can fall on our necks at any moment.

Matham is a tech geek. Follow him on Twitter @AdarshMatham

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