Heather Brooke

What the Refrigerator Saw

Future Crimes: A Journey to the Dark Side of Technology – and How to Survive It

By

Bantam Press 452pp £20 order from our bookshop

It’s his editor I feel sorry for. ‘She worked weekends and nights, and even missed family gatherings in the cause of this book,’ says Marc Goodman. However, despite her overtime, Future Crimes remains a testament to turgid prose. The title is promising enough and there are some interesting and intriguing ideas about the way crime will morph as it adapts to the digital age. But a tougher editor would have pared this book down by half.

Most future crimes, according to Goodman, will involve hacking – hacking GPS, hacking software and hardware, hacking the systems that computers use to connect to other devices and the internet, such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, radio-frequency identification and near-field communication. As we computerise cars, they’ll be hacked. Implantable medical devices will be hacked through insecure communications systems.

The most informative and thoughtful part of Future Crimes discusses our race towards the Internet of Things. Numerous devices, from thermostats to fridges, will soon be connected, insecurely, to the internet. This presents new dangers: ‘While connecting everything to a global Internet of Things may indeed have tremendous value, connecting everything insecurely does not. Before we add billions of hackable things and communicate with hackable data transmission protocols, important questions must be asked.’

Instead of asking those questions, Goodman presents trite examples of what they might imply: ‘At the scene of a suspected crime, cops will be able to interrogate the refrigerator and ask the equivalent of “Hey, buddy, did you see anything?”’

Goodman points out how the Internet of Things will make real space mimic cyberspace. We’ve seen the way once-free cyberspace has evolved into a business based on surveillance, where personal data is tracked, recorded, monetised and sold. The same will happen in real space. ‘In this world’, Goodman writes, ‘pulling down the shades won’t keep out the twenty-first century’s Peeping Toms.’

Here’s the main inconsistency in the book. ‘Hackers have become the new mafia,’ Goodman writes, and large parts of the book are given over to descriptions of hackers with wizardly powers ready to unleash a maelstrom of bad code that jeopardises our future. But the most invasive examples he gives come not from individual hackers but governments. They include the hacking of the Iranian nuclear facility, apparently by the US government. Then there are robotic killing machines (drones) and the ARGUS-IS, the world’s highest-resolution camera, with a ‘persistent stare’ capability that can ‘track all ground movements across an entire medium-sized city’ from an altitude of 60,000 feet. Its images are of such high quality that they reveal ‘every single movement on the ground (car, bus, person, dog) and can be played back DVR-style at will’. Goodman says these spying machines ‘long ago left the theater of war and can now be found flying domestic missions over the continental United States’.

In the second half of the book, Goodman examines in greater detail the dangers posed by governments and corporations. ‘We will see new and previously unimaginable assaults upon our privacy,’ he predicts. Once again, the biggest dangers will come from the Internet of Things. ‘Though your robot vacuum, elder-care bot, or play toy may sit in the corner looking innocuous and cute, ready to serve at a moment’s notice, it is armed with an array of cameras, microphones, and sensors capable of seeing and recording everything you do in the privacy of your own home.’

This will open the world to ‘perfect enforcement’, which you’d think Goodman, who has worked for the FBI and as an INTERPOL adviser, would support. But he is not looking forward to the day when you can sanction people for going one mile over the speed limit or for staying seconds too long on a parking meter: ‘when everything is connected, nothing can be hidden, particularly when infractions translate into revenue for government agencies and their business partners.’

What seriously lets the book down is the writing. Describing the capture of Ross Ulbricht, who was recently found guilty of running the drug-selling dark-web company Silk Road, Goodman writes: ‘Stunned librarians, jaws agape, looked on as the young man with wavy brown hair was placed under arrest and taken to the Glenn Dyer Jail in Oakland for booking.’ A few pages later, Goodman tells Bertolt Meyer how easily his bionic hand could be hacked using its Bluetooth connection. ‘Suddenly, in an instant, Meyer understood the implications of his vulnerability and turned ashen gray, jaw agape at the vulnerabilities that nobody had previously disclosed to him.’

The author’s biography promises a book full of investigative insight. Yet despite his vast law-enforcement experience, we see none of it in the book. The stories told all come from news articles, cited in extensive footnotes, including that bastion of fact-checked media MailOnline. If you set up a Google news alert for ‘hacking’ you will be as well informed as Goodman about the world of future crime.

The term ‘Crime, Inc’ is used to stand in for actual named people or organisations: ‘He was apparently working on behalf of Crime, Inc’; ‘The future of robotic crime looks promising indeed to Crime, Inc’. Where he does cite ‘undercover research’, it is to give us the org chart of Crime, Inc. You’ll be jaws agape to discover that the most common roles in Crime, Inc are those of CEO, chief finance officer, marketing officer, and so on.

In his final chapter, offering ‘solutions’, he suggests that citizens might in future ‘crowdvestigate’ to counter Crime, Inc. He cites as evidence The Guardian’s crowdsourcing experiment of June 2009, in which the newspaper uploaded Parliament’s redacted expenses documents to its website for public inspection. However, he mistakenly credits the resignation of the speaker of the House of Commons, along with several ministers and MPs, to this. More informed readers might know that the scandal and resignations actually resulted from a freedom-of-information request made many years before and a High Court ruling in 2008 for the release of the expenses data. A leaked copy of this was sold to the Daily Telegraph, which reported the details in May 2009, more than a month before The Guardian obtained the publicly released copies. Such a sloppy disregard for facts doesn’t inspire much confidence in this criminal investigator-turned-author.

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