Sometimes the news we cover makes us want to crawl under our beds and wait for the apocalypse. These are the most terrifying technology trends that emerged this year.
Keep us up at NightCNET 100: The ones that keep us up at night
These trends make us want to cover our eyes and plug our ears and sing "La, la, la."
What's worse than fighting the enemy? Fighting the enemy's Terminator-style robot soldier. Boston Dynamics is developing the Petman robot, an anthropomorphic bot designed to test chemical protection clothing used by the U.S. Army. But given its ability to move "dynamically like a real person," it shouldn't be hard to take it to the next step and embed a weapon in its "arm." Already satellite-guided robot drones are being used to conduct air strikes, but are sometimes killing innocent people instead of intended targets.
Keep us up at NightAt a time when U.S. unemployment is more than 20 percent, if you count people who have given up finding a job or are underemployed, demanding an Internet "kill switch" seems like an odd way for U.S. senators to spend their time. But it's been a priority for three of them--Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), and Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.)--for the last few years.
The idea of handing the White House some form of a "kill switch" has been around since at least 2009, when Rockefeller suggested that the president could "declare a cybersecurity emergency." It returned last year, with Lieberman proposing that companies such as broadband providers, search engines, or software firms that the government selects must "immediately comply with any emergency measure or action developed" by the Department of Homeland Security. Lieberman and Collins returned to the topic in January 2011 legislation handing President Obama power over the Internet during a "national cyberemergency."
Keep us up at NightFor years security experts have warned that the next hacker playground would be energy and utility firm networks. That day has come. Last year we saw the emergence of Stuxnet, which experts say was designed to sabotage Iran's nuclear program. And last month a hacker posted screenshots to the Web as proof that he hacked into a Texas water utility and claims to have hacked into other SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) systems. Meanwhile, an official leaked report of a cyber intrusion at an Illinois water utility turned out to be a false alarm, later attributed to a contractor remotely logging in while on vacation in Russia
What WikiLeaks has dubbed the "Spy Files" is a collection of marketing and technical documents, including previously unreleased presentations from companies that showed up at government-only conferences like ISS World Europe, billed as a gathering in 2008 for "telecom operators, law enforcement," and employees of spy agencies. Amesys, a unit of French technology firm Bull SA, whose hardware was used by the Libyan secret police, boasts in a leaked document how it can aid governments in moving from eavesdropping on one person to "full country traffic monitoring," including automatic translation and mapping of real-world social networks based on who's talking to who.
Tatiana Lucas, whose company organizes conferences where dictatorial regimes go surveillance-shopping, complained about the disclosures in a letter to The Wall Street Journal saying that the attention will have a "negative effect on job creation in the U.S." Eisenhower, who cautioned against the "acquisition of unwarranted influence" by the military-industrial complex, would not have been surprised.
Keep us up at Night In 2008, Barack Obama (then a candidate running for president) told CNET that he would "strengthen both voluntary and legally required privacy protections." In 2011, President Obama's Justice Department has done precisely the opposite by arguing that police should be able to peruse Americans' e-mail and track the whereabouts of their cars and cell phones--without needing a judge's signature on a search warrant first.
Another DOJ lobbying priority, which a House of Representatives committee approved in July, would force Internet providers to keep logs of their customers' activities for one year for police convenience. No wonder the Electronic Privacy Information Center gave the president a "D" on civil liberties for 2010. Don't be surprised if his grade drops for 2011.
Keep us up at NightThe concept of secret laws might seem better suited to books about dating than to the United States government, except that it's actually happening in Washington. In May, U.S. senators on the Intelligence committee (who enjoy top secret security clearances) warned that the Justice Department has twisted the Patriot Act into a "secret" surveillance mechanism far broader than Americans realize.
"I believe that when more of my colleagues and the American public come to understand how the Patriot Act has actually been interpreted in secret, they will insist on significant reforms too," said Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat. Sen. Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat, offered a similar warning.
They're worried about a section of the 2001 law that the FBI has interpreted as authorizing a massive data vacuum cleaner to extract Americans' personal information from private sector databases. The Justice Department has
confirmed it's "been used to obtain driver's license records, hotel records, car rental records, apartment leasing records, credit card records, and the like." It could also allow tracking of the location of anyone with a cell phone. But reform efforts failed and the Patriot Act was extended through 2015.
Keep us up at NightThe stakes for speaking out against the drug cartels in Mexico have always been high, with journalists routinely being killed to send a message. There is no refuge in cyberspace either. Four bodies have been found in Mexico that appear to be retaliations for social media activity. Last month, the decapitated body of a man was left at a public monument in Nuevo Laredo with a message indicating that the man had been killed for reporting "things on social networks." A few months earlier, a woman's body was found decapitated at the same spot, and the bodies of a man and a woman were found hanging from an overpass in the town, all with similar warning messages.
Keep us up at NightIt's unlikely that Rep. Lamar Smith expected his Stop Online Piracy Act would attract so much vitriol so quickly.
But after the Texas Republican expanded the government's power to censor
allegedly piratical Web sites beyond what earlier versions allowed, SOPA became something that only Washington lobbyists seemed to love. Nearly 90,000 Tumblr users telephoned Congress to register their disagreement, and hundreds of Web sites applied a bit of HTML code from AmericanCensorship.org to "censor" themselves in protest. Not helping was that SOPA targets not only offshore Web sites, but also U.S. businesses that are currently breaking no law, prompting critics to quickly offer an alternative.
Smith, whose campaign committee receives more cash from Hollywood than any other source, remains unrepentant. He's hoping to advance the bill to a House of Representatives floor vote after holding zero hearings on the technical aspects of the Internet's least favorite piece of legislation.
Keep us up at NightBeing honest with your customers about what software is being implanted on their mobile device, and telling them what it does, should be an easy rule to follow. But Apple found itself ensnared in a privacy flap in April when an undocumented feature became public that surreptitiously records the approximate location of an iPhone or iPad and saves it on the device. Apple called it a "bug" and said the database was intended to improve location-based services--but, by then, there was already a full-fledged privacy panic afoot.
Later in the year, AT&T, Sprint, and other wireless companies came under fire for not disclosing to their customers the existence of software called Carrier IQ, which can be configured to record (and transmit to carriers) URLs visited, even if the Web browsing takes place on a Wi-Fi network or they're HTTPS links that are encrypted. Carrier IQ was cleared of the more serious allegation of being a "rootkit keylogger," but URL recording nevertheless amounts to the equivalent of a misdemeanor, and AT&T and Sprint still won't say whether it's turned on or not.
And let's not forget Wi-Fi databases, which record the locations of wireless devices' unique MAC addresses--usually only Wi-Fi access points are recorded, but mistakes happen. Google curbed access to its database a few days after a CNET article
appeared in June showing how it could be used to track someone. Microsoft followed suit the following month.
Keep us up at NightCongratulations for making it to the final item in our list of 10 scary tech trends. That's saying a lot today, when there are so many other things competing for our attention. I finally got used to checking Facebook and Twitter all the time, and now there are posts on Google + to read. My phone just dinged alerting me to a new e-mail. Now there's a text from my dental office reminding me of an appointment. And my friend from England is calling me on my iPad 2 via Facetime. I can't finish reading an article, let alone writing one without something distracting me. I fear we are destined to become a condensed culture of half-finished books and almost executed actions, constantly anticipating what's next. I'd really like to finish that thought, but there's an Instagram photo I want to take.