"Program a map to display frequency of data exchange, every thousand megabytes a single pixel on a very large screen," wrote William Gibson. "Up your scale. Each pixel a million megabytes. At a hundred million megabytes per second, you begin to make out certain blocks in midtown Manhattan, outlines of hundred-year-old industrial parks. ..."
Gibson's "Neuromancer" is a groundbreaking work of fiction, the novel that arguably launched an entire genre known as "cyberpunk." The genre is in turn characterized by the blurring of mundane reality and cyberspace, the muddying of our real, flesh-and-blood lives with the complications of a world that can be neither seen nor heard – though it is only too greatly felt – except through the portal, across the veil, and with the aid of technology. A dystopian future that once might have seemed more fantasy than possible fact is now only too attainable. Crime has moved from the "meatspace" of the real world to the endless vistas of the virtual world's ether. The result is a liberation, of sorts, as criminals find ways both to commit and to facilitate crime from behind the screens of computers.
As San Francisco's KCBS reported on Sunday, hackers grew more sophisticated in their virtual burglaries in the last year, stealing identities and appropriating bank and credit-card information with ever-greater skill. The popular social networking sites Facebook and Twitter were both attacked in 2009 – and the anti-virus experts at McAfee claim that sites like Facebook will become the "platforms of choice" for hackers and "cyber criminals" in 2010. Larry Magid at CNET reports that users of Adobe Systems (such as Adobe Flash and the omnipresent Adobe Reader) likely also will be targeted, and that the introduction of Google's "Chrome" browser provides yet another new window of vulnerability. (The report says that exploits targeting Adobe programs will "become the preferred targets for criminal hackers ... surpassing Microsoft Office applications.") McAfee's doomsaying goes on to predict smarter, more dangerous trojan viruses and malware like the "Koobface" virus that spreads among Facebook users' friends lists. An increase in "rogue Facebook applications" could make your social networking an exercise in computer virus propagation.
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Lest you think that you're safe from virtual crime as long as you're not tweeting your weekend plans or networking with people who attended your high school 20 years ago, don't. A hacker in Germany claims he's cracked the encryption that protects the GSM networks that serve the overwhelming majority of wireless telephone calls. Even if you've told yourself you'll stay off your phone while you're out doing your after-Christmas shopping, you're still not safe. A 28-year-old college dropout who is also an expert hacker and identity thief only recently pleaded guilty to stealing more than 170 million bank and credit-card numbers from corporate computer systems. This is a theft that occurs completely virtually, compromising your financial information without your involvement in any way. When you get a notice from your credit or debit card company telling you that your card number is being changed and reissued due to a problem at a "third party location," you've experienced this very electronic mugging.
The virtual and real worlds of crime only too often intersect, and often in disturbing ways. "Who's clicking on your kids?" This was the question asked by the Charlotte Observer this week, in a report on the dangers of posting pictures and information of and about your children on social networking sites. Many parents do just this, posting the names and images of their children in their online photo albums. It's only natural to want to share this type of thing with friends and family – but if the information is not properly safeguarded, predators can use it to learn things about your family and then use this information against your children. A stranger who shows up outside your child's school armed with "inside" information about your relatives and family activities – gleaned from your online photo albums and timeline updates – might be able to fool your kids into thinking he's a friend.
A young man named Nicolas Castro recently threatened one of Columbian President Uribe's sons on Facebook. He reportedly used Facebook "to access information about the Uribe family." This means he did precisely what countless mothers and fathers worry might be done with their Facebook information.
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The news isn't all bad, though. Even as social networking becomes society's newest lousy neighborhood, law enforcement and civic groups are using the same websites to fight the crime manifesting through them. Police in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, have been advised to use Facebook "as an alternative approach to solve criminal cases." Many miles away in the physical world – but not so far in the virtual one – Crime Stoppers in the Ottawa area is using YouTube and Twitter to look for crime-watch tips. Even as the police close in, however, at least one high-profile criminal is using the same social networking site to taunt them. Craig Lynch, who escaped from a minimum-security prison in England a few months ago, continues to update his thousands of Facebook friends as he remains at large.
Technology only expands. It is amoral. It is inexorable. It neither feels no reasons. It simply is, and it will continue to be. Barring a society-leveling disaster, the integration of modern technology in our lives – and the interweaving of the virtual world with our real existence – will only increase. It now comprises the sum total of everything we do when using a computer ... and everything our data does, even without our knowledge or consent, as it travels William Gibson's brightly lighted, data-laden arteries and veins. Anything you post, anything you buy, anything you upload or download, is a potential point of exploitation.
As a new decade dawns, there has never been a time when you needed to be more aware of this than now.