Security Exploitation by Our Technological Devices

Erik Vokoun

Seth Josephson

Science and Technology in the US

11 March 2015

Security Exploitation by Our Technological Devices

It is becoming evident that society has become more and more reliant on technology. Especially within the last decade, the incorporation of portable technologies such as smartphones, laptops, iPads and iPods into our daily lives have revolutionized the way people interact socially, communicate, and inquire knowledge. For many people, our technological devices provide us with a “safety net” for reality. They give a sense of security in our hands and evoke panic when their familiar lump in our pockets feel empty. Some technology critics, such as Sherry Turkle, argue that technology is making society more isolated by providing an alternate cyber universe to escape into through our digital personas. However, we face a startling reality that these seemingly detached, private, and secure identities born through our technological devices consequentially provide an entryway for our actual lives to be monitored, hacked, and exploited.

Our own governments are in fact some of the largest culprits of this privacy invasion. “Of course, it’s no secret that governments are able to intercept telephone calls and text messages” said Christopher Soghoian, an expert on government surveillance and hacking technology. Hacking technology has now become a 5 billion dollar industry and is being spearheaded by third party companies, like Gamma in Germany, which sell their software to governments for catching terrorists, pedophiles, drug dealers, tax evaders, etc. The FBI has been confirmed to have its own hacking technology for law enforcement and intelligence techniques. The big problem of governments going into hacking, according to Soghoian, is that terrorists, pedophiles, drug dealers, and human rights journalists all use the same kinds of technology as the general public. This gives the government a tremendous amount of exploitation power to monitor and tap into almost anyone’s “personal” lives without almost any regulation or opposition. In fact their power exceeds interception of information and now allows direct access to webcams, microphones, and documents on devices (Soghoian).

The fact that governments have this power became most apparent to the public following the implementation of the US PATRIOT Act in 2001 following the September 11th terrorist attacks. This Act, which stands for “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism” legally gives the Government consent to tap into citizens personal lives through our technological devices. Not only does this act disguise its exploitation with a clever title acronym, but also makes privacy invasion okay according to the law despite its complicated ethical implications.

As a society, it is alarming how accustomed we have become to this exploitation. We are becoming more and more public as a culture and can be demonstrated by how we post everything about our lives on social media. As Turkle analyzes, we create a sense of connection and community by our participation in these online societies. “People are lonely. The network is seductive. But if we are always on, we may deny ourselves the rewards of solitude” (Turkle, 3). Where our direct human interaction may suffer, society has no doubt strengthened our connection through online personas. Our standards for privacy and understanding of what should be private have greatly changed throughout the past decade. The ethical debate over governments and large corporations having this hacking capability is often muffled by the public’s apathy. Many people simply hold the position “Why would the government care about me?” or “Who cares if the government sees what I can do?” It is also being portrayed as a positive capability of the government which will help assure the overall safety and security of the nation as a whole. Accepting and supporting the government’s hacking programs is directly labeled as a “patriotic” act which is in support of one’s country. The “PATRIOT” Act is cleverly named to convey such positive implication and generate instinctual support from its citizens. We are asked to sacrifice our own individual privacy to gain national security, but are we really okay with this? Even if we are tolerant of our governments invading our privacy, there are other corporations such as cell phone applications that also take advantage of our technological portals.

Snapchat is one of the largest developing mobile application for communications. It provides its users with the ability to share and communicate using temporary photos with captions that are (falsely) promised to “disappear” after a specified amount of time. However, like governments, Snapchat uses its application to collect data about its users and monitor their personal lives. Snapchat and other application companies protects their hacking capabilities through lengthy user Agreements that the majority of users blindly sign. These agreements also contain very vague statements which contain hidden exploitive power. Snapchat’s agreement includes the consent for the application to access the mobile devices camera. This makes sense in hindsight considering it is a photo sharing application. However, in reality this statement gives the application company permission to hack into a user’s camera at any time, turn off shutter, and take pictures without the owner being aware. The user agreement also grants the company permission to store user’s location and extract contact information (Louisville FBI).

Again, as users we must evaluate the ethics behind these capabilities and whether or not we should continue to allow our privacy to be violated. In a capitalistic society it is expected that every service should come at a price. Yet, people rarely question when they see a “free” application or log onto a “free” service such as Facebook. What we tend to forget is that as users, we become the product being sold for these free applications. These companies use our personal information primarily to sell to marketers for profit. One random teenager’s actions may not seem significant at all, but when compiled with millions of other users, marketers can in fact get very detailed and accurate information about their target audiences. When put into this context, the public still hold either positive or indifferent opinions about allowing these companies access to their privacy. However, when faced with the image of a physical person “listening in” or “watching” your life, the ethical problems and insecure feelings become much more apparent. These feelings are easy to ignore and seem less invasive when we can picture a large corporation or government behind these exploitations or when we are provided with a service such as the enjoyment of an application or the promise of national security. The scary fact is that hacking technology is not just limited to these major corporations, but abusive individuals. This in when our lives can dangerously impacted.

With the increase reliance on and utilization of mobile technology in our daily lives, people have greatly raised their chances and ability to be victims of identity theft, spam, viruses/ malware, etc. As I mentioned before, society now promotes the sharing of personal information through posting photographs, life events, or even videos from vacations. This influx of information allows individual hackers and spammers a plethora of information to prey off of. In addition, we become more reliant on technology, specifically mobile cell “smart phones” to operate. We use our phones to check email, shop online, GPS, share contacts, store passwords, and now even use as our credit cards. Cell phones in the last decade have become so much more than calling devices, but personal mobile computers. The issue with this is that these mobile devices are just as easy to hack into as standard PC’s or desktop computers. Most users are aware of the threats of viruses/malware, internet hackers, and identity thieves with their desktop computer and have anti malware protection programs on their devices, but fail to recognize the same existing threats with their mobile phones. However, since these phones are always with us, used much more often, and now contain even more sensitive/private information, they become even more vulnerable (Gahran).

While attending a job shadow presentation on IT security with the FBI in Louisville, Kentucky last spring, I was demonstrated by a Special Agent just how easy it is for our mobile devices to be exploited. At a local Panera, just down the street from my high school, he was able to access up to 6 strangers’ personal devices and information by creating a fake hotspot with his own computer that he named “Panera Free Wifi.” These people mindlessly connected to this network, or even worse had their devices set to automatically connect to open networks, and began working on average, daily tasks. The agent however was able to connect to their devices through the shared network and display their screens onto his own device. As these strangers began logging onto social media and emails, he could save their passwords which they were directly typing in and giving to him. This becomes dangerous when one stranger may decide to check his or her banking account or log into Amazon, where their credit card information is stored (Louisville FBI). These strangers were lucky that the person doing this was a moral FBI agent doing a presentation, however there are millions of people every year that are victims of similar exploitation by individuals with much more malicious intentions.

In conclusion, the lives we live online and through our technological devices are not as private and secure as we may think. Even when awareness of company’s or government capabilities to hack and steal information about us becomes apparent, society tends to neglect these ethical violations in order to maintain enjoyment from these companies products, or promised national security. However, these technologies can fall into the wrong hands and lead to much more serious consequences. Christopher Soghoian urges at the end of his presentation the need for an informed public and an active debate on this topic. This power can and will only continue to manifest and become more and more dangerous if decided to use in favor of one party over another. This is an issue where ethical lines have not yet been established, or even challenged. It should no longer be a social norm to accept this exploitation without question, opposition, or even regulation. As a culture, we must decide these lines. This can be done just by self-checking one self’s actions. Simply pausing to reflect who might possibly view or have access to what we are doing with our technology or educating oneself on how to become less reliant on technology. This will especially be important when handling private information such as social security or credit card numbers, which can have detrimental consequences when exploited. The social apathy/ “who cares?” attitude towards corporation hackers is drastically different when it is a Friday night “selfie” being hacked versus a person’s bank account. Therefore, until better defined regulatory legislation can be established for this issue, even then there is no guarantee against criminal hackers, our privacy is in our hands. It is our responsibility to uphold justice and still maintain our freedom of personal privacy, which can both be controlled by how we continue to utilize developing technology in our society.

Works Cited

Gahran, Amy “Mobile Phones: what are the risks?” CNN. June 17 2011

Louisville FBI. IT SECURITY PRESENTATION. “2014 High School Job Shadow Day” February 24 2014.

Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. , 2011. Print.

Soghoian, Christopher “Government Surveillance- this is just the beginning” TED fellows Retreat. August 18 2013.