Posted by: David Harley | January 4, 2016

Barbies and Crystal Balls

[Parts of this article were originally published on the ITSecurity UK blog here and here, and on WeLiveSecurity here.]

It’s traditional at this time of year for security researchers to risk their credibility by offering their predictions as to what will happen in information security in the next 12 months. Usually in multiples of ten. Or at least the unhidden one-tenth of the researcher iceberg spending enough time in the public eye to attract the attention of journalists and their own PR departments.

Apparently there’s a perception that the public loves a list, even if it’s a list of sort of glamour-free topic that preoccupies the security industry.

Happily, my own accelerating slide into old age, grumpiness, and the obscurity that tends to accompany (semi-)retirement has allowed me to avoid the worst excesses of this tradition in recent years. Though I don’t say that it’s totally without interest. As I said elsewhere some years ago:

Security prognostication isn’t science: it’s more like science fiction, and classic science fiction isn’t about the future, but the present. A view of the future refracted through today’s trends may be through a glass darkly, but it’s not valueless.

And while I don’t intend to make any predictions about developments in malware/anti-malware technology, perhaps I will mention some issues that I think will be discussed over the coming months.

  • The Internet of Things. Of course. After all, it represents an ever-widening attack surface. And since we tend to be quite sensitive to any threat to children and/or health, anything involving toys like the Pink Fink or healthcare devices as discussed here. And indeed, recent crises involving Hello Kitty and VTech indicate the risks are not trivial. (And to think I used to tell people that my small daughter’s Vtech computer had the safest operating system I knew…) It’s not just criminals who are interested in this stuff either: though if your opinion of politicians is as high as mine, you may already have considered that. However, there are plenty of less dramatic possibilities.
  • Tech support scams. Even though the security industry, with a few exceptions, takes very little notice of them, they continue to make a lot of money from their victims. Small-ish sums for individuals, but more than enough to keep some unpleasant individuals richer than they should be, and now increasingly found going far beyond mere deception, keeping company with ransomware and other malware.
  • Ah yes. Ransomware. (For some reason I keep typing that as ‘ransomeware’: strange, since I’ve never actually read ‘Swallows and Amazons‘…) I’ve been worried enough by the way its technology has become more sophisticated and the mounting volumes of people it is affecting to have started a vendor-neutral ransomware resource page. It’s a little piecemeal at the moment, but it does at least provide a starting point for people looking for more information.
  • The death of anti-virus. Again. Especially around RSA and Infosecurity, when companies in other areas of security are desperately seeking column inches at the expense of the ‘traditional’ anti-malware industry. (When I was more PR-friendly, I used to make this prediction every year, and I was never disappointed…) Well, old-school anti-virus in the sense of self-replicating malware and static signatures is long dead, and rightly so. But there’s more to security software than that, and replacing one solution du jour with another is not enough.

OK, it’s not a top ten. But it’s providing me with more than enough issues to worry about at the moment. Nevertheless, while I was working on the above list, I was persuaded to contribute to a ‘brief, occasionally tongue-in-cheek view from a number of ESET researchers on what they expect 2016 will bring.’

So these were my additional thoughts:

  • More convergence between tech support scams and real malware, especially ransomware.
  • Increased targeting of platforms other than Windows for pop-up fake alerts and for ransomware.
  • In the UK at least, NHS sites will continue to be slammed by security bloggers for squandering their pitiful resources on direct healthcare instead of upgrading computer systems.
  • More toys will follow the Pink Fink (a.k.a. Hello Barbie) into the Internet of Things (IoT), despite concerns about privacy and the continued attention of researchers probing for scareworthy vulnerabilities.
  • Understandable panic about terrorist attacks and other manifestations of physical violence will be translated into calls for the weakening of encryption and the abolishing of privacy.

If you’d like to see what my colleagues at ESET North America thought (and their suggestions are certainly worth reading), you can read them here: ESET predictions and trends for cybercrime in 2016.

But what was that about Hello Barbie? Well, I described here how Barbie is in trouble again, though at least she isn’t spreading viruses this time. It could certainly be said that she’s still failing as a role model, though. At any rate, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood is worried enough by Hello Barbie, a Wi-Fi enabled version of the doll with an embedded microphone intended to transmit what the child who owns it says to cloud-hosted voice recognition software.

The CCFC article articulates concerns that analysis of the child’s conversations will be used to elicit information about the child’s interests and family, and that play will be driven by Mattel rather than the child. Mattel’s policy on the data it collects, including audio data, is stated here and much is made of its limited nature. According to an article in The Register dating back to the announcement of the Pink Fink, Big Blue are moving in a similar direction with a Green Dinosaur. (This is starting to look like a Rainbow Coalition with overtones of Zippy and Bungle.)

It may not have escaped your notice that this is the (probably inevitable) next step from furry devices like Teddy Ruxpin and Furby, which only played back pre-recorded material and had no recording capability. It’s a big step, though. I have no grounds (apart from nearly seven decades of scepticism and downright cynicism) for disbelieving Mattel’s assurances that children will not be bombarded with advertising, but the acceptance of this level of ‘eavesdropping’ with the potential for conversational data to be transmitted far beyond the walls of home and reviewed by outsiders has ‘interesting’ and disconcerting implications, despite Mattel’s own safeguards. Other parties may be less scrupulous.

There’s no word yet on whether NSA staff will be banned from bringing their Barbies to the office.

A happy and prosperous new year to you. Don’t let the bugs byte. 🙂

David Harley
Small Blue-Green World
ESET Senior Research Fellow


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