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2014 – a year of escalating Ransomware, Bitcoin, Privacy and Digital Vagrants

December 27, 2013

As each new year approaches there is a lot of temptation to ‘predict’ the future, but the reality is that the future in technology and security often unfolds in a

As each new year approaches there is a lot of temptation to ‘predict’ the future, but the reality is that the future in technology and security often unfolds in a linear fashion as new inventions and techniques encompass old ones.

Here are a few trends observed this year that may well continue well into 2014, with some new and interesting challenges as well.


In 2014, Ransomware and Malware will be more sophisticated

The recent emergence of the Cryptolocker malware has been an inevitable continuation of the ransomware trend, but what set it apart was its sophistication and ability to encrypt files and then demand money from victims so successfully.

You might argue that targeted threats to individuals in the past have been just as troublesome, but Cryptolocker represents a much more brazen attempt to extort money from victims, and unfortunately it been very successful.

CryptoLocker Ransomware demands $300 to decrypt your files

Security researchers have often quipped “it could be worse”, as online criminals seem to hold back from inflicting the maximum damage possible to make their instant fortunes, but in 2014 all of that may well change, especially if Cryptolocker is anything to go by.

Other less commonly reported examples of ransomware infections in 2013 have included the ability to take photos of a user with their own web camera.  The photo of the victim is then used in a threat to report the user to legal authorities for fake crimes, using material such as child pornography, that is uploaded onto the victim’s computer as ‘evidence’ by the malware.


Internet vigilantism

While 2013 has seen some in-roads into the consolidation of efforts across international borders between law enforcement agencies from different nations, the progress is still slow in comparison to active threats. If this continues, expect to see Internet vigilantism to be on the rise as well.

Internet vigilantism was clearly in effect this year when several digital citizens took it upon themselves to investigate potential suspects responsible for the Boston Marathon Bombing, bringing about the term ‘digilante’.

At the same time the term ‘active defence’ seems to have gained popularity in the security community also and many are now daring to refer to the concept of ‘offensive security’ – where you employ your own potentially unethical tactics to find an attacker online.

Proponents of offensive security argue that cybercriminals continue to flourish because their crimes go unpunished.  Accordingly, there are already a number of secretive clandestine groups operating on the Internet attempting to counter crime in ways that may well include acts of Internet vigilantism – disrupting the work of cybercriminals independent of established law enforcement agencies.


Money wants to be free in 2014

The concept of peer-to-peer technology, once associated with the need for users to share music, movies and other content for free is now being applied to Money – in the form of ‘crypto currencies’ like Bitcoin and other digitally based financial instruments.  Expect to see a lot more on this topic this year.

Many will suggest that Bitcoin is nothing more than a tool for criminals, citing examples such as Cryptolocker ransomware – which uses Bitcoin as an anonymous payment method and has possibly has been one of the drivers of the recent spike in the value of Bitcoin.

Bitcoin mining

Whatever the ultimate moral position will be, the invention of using cryptography to secure a chain of money transactions in a peer-to-peer payment system is one that has the clear potential to disrupt existing monolithic financial systems, and to transform the flow of money (through minimising or eliminating bank transfer fees) across the globe.

How these crypto-currency technologies, which are incredibly complex, will end up being infiltrating mainstream society is the real challenge.  Plus governments around the world already share very mixed sentiments as they deal with the inevitable taxation issues that will arise.

Next year, keep your eye on Bitcoin (and others such as Litecoin and Novacoin) and be very cautious of the volatility and high risk of what is still a relative minnow in world finance; and prepare to see the world evolve as the technologies behind them are tested and explored further.


Privacy – It’s all about choice

In an ever-fractured world when it comes to Privacy, thanks in part to Mr. Snowden, the one thing to remember is that Privacy is still your choice. In 2014, I expect to see much more discussion around how we all must stand up for our rights and choose what our own comfort levels are when it comes to Privacy.

You may wish to unplug from the Internet completely and live ‘off-the-grid’, or conversely you may prefer sharing every minute of your existence on Social Media. However you chose to share your life, what’s important is that you do so in a way that you are comfortable with. Having said that, we have noticed privacy tribes are beginning to form.

There are those that don’t wish to live in a surveillance state, while there are others who have complete faith in the ability of their governments to protect them.  And others that merely wish to be informed of the best products and bargains by submitting their location and purchasing habits freely to third parties.  Either way, there is freedom in choosing your position.

And then there are the new and invasive technologies to consider, whether it’s what happens when more people start wearing cameras that record everything they see (such as Google Glass), or your next-door neighbour hovering their Quadcopter over your backyard.


Digital vagrants

Over the next five years, as many as 2.5 billion people are expected to be connecting to the Internet across the world for the very first time.  That’s a lot of novice users experiencing the same learning curves that many of us have already dealt with.

However, faced with ever growing technological complexity these new users face a much steeper learning curve and, unfortunately, are likely to be just as vulnerable as experienced users once were.

And it’s not just the new users that have it tough.  There are scores of users who struggle daily to keep up with a world where technology is evolving almost monthly – new gadgets and the Internet of Everything are quickly encompassing everything we do.

We know that protection is best achieved with an equal combination of the right technology, up to date systems and the highest level of awareness and education in the face of the latest scams and tactics; it remains a constant battle to ensure that new users are provided with enough knowledge to remain safe and secure.

But users who are left behind to wander around in an online world that largely ignores them are nothing more than the digital equivalent of vagrants – trying to get by an confusing and overwhelming world.  In 2014, I would expect this issue to be addressed head on as the problem becomes more visible.

As an early example of a possible solution, this year saw Google introduced the concept of ‘Helpouts’ allowing people to share knowledge via video conference (for a fee) and is one of several technical solutions, I believe, are poised to help accelerate the amount of learning that is now required for new digital citizens to settle into their online lives safely and quickly.

Until next year, stay safe out there.

December 27, 2013