Clapper Says Internet of Things is America’s Greatest Threat

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta walks with James Clapper Jr., left, director of National Intelligence, and Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess Jr., director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, before the agency's 50th anniversary commemoration ceremony on Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Washington, D.C., Sept. 29, 2011. (PHOTO CREDIT: Jacob N. Bailey, USAF, via Wikimedia Commons)
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta walks with James Clapper Jr., left, director of National Intelligence, and Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess Jr., director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, before the agency’s 50th anniversary commemoration ceremony on Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Washington, D.C., Sept. 29, 2011. (PHOTO CREDIT: Jacob N. Bailey, USAF, via Wikimedia Commons)

Cybersecurity remains America’s greatest threat, according to a report presented today by James R. Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

Almost two and a half centuries after America declared independence, over 150 years since the end of the Civil War, and 66 years since the Soviet Union became the second country in the world to possess nuclear weapons, the greatest threat the intelligence community sees facing the United States is Wi-Fi-enabled toasters. No, really.

Item one, bullet point on in the report is “Internet of Things,” the broad catch-all for internet connected home appliances, ranging from baby monitors to thermostats. Here’s how Clapper describes the risk:

Security industry analysts have demonstrated that many of these new systems can threaten data privacy, data integrity, or continuity of services. In the future, intelligence services might use the [Internet of Things] for identification, surveillance, monitoring, location tracking, and targeting for recruitment, or to gain access to networks or user credentials.

“Intelligence services” here mostly means spy networks from other countries, with hackers and spooks cracking into unsecured devices and peeking around inside. As threats go, this is relatively easy to mitigate and almost impossible to prevent entirely. Many devices, like pacemakers, come with either no or just default encryption settings.

That was enough for former vice president Dick Cheney to disable the online features of his pacemaker. It’s also something that manufacturers can mostly fix, but adopting better cybersecurity practices and making sure their devices hold up to attacks. Interestingly, President Obama also chose today to ask Congress for more money to bolster private and public cybersecurity practices nationwide.

Something as straightforward as requiring a password before someone on a wifi network can access a device goes a huge way to reducing the risk. There are classes in security and even online educational games that teach the raw basics. Widespread and basic knowledge of cybersecurity best practices will go a long way to mitigating the threat, even if perfect security is impossible.

Besides hacked baby monitors, the cybersecurity part of the report is specifically worried about the rise of artificial intelligence. As humans turn over decision making, or parts of decision making, to exceptionally clever machines, we can expect the machines to fail in new and unique ways, sometimes as the result of an attack. From the report:

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SOURCE: Popular Science, Kelsey D. Atherton