Sci-fi writers: New tech will bring more security challenges

A group of science-fiction writers predicts significant IT security challenges in the near future

If IT security professionals think they have challenges now, they should wait until new technologies such as quantum computing and devices embedded in skin arrive in the not-so-distant future, three science-fiction writers said Monday.

The writers envisioned a near future where quantum computing, and its foundations in parallel states, could mean attacks coming from parallel worlds. Theories dealing with quantum computing would suggest parallel universes exit, said Greg Bear, author of more than 30 science-fiction and fantasy books.

"Let's get really paranoid now," said Bear, during a roundtable at the Gartner IT Security Summit near Washington, D.C. "Consider you could be hacked by people not of your universe."

Perhaps a more likely scenario is that quantum computing, with its theoretical ability to work on a million computations at once, could destroy current encryption methods, said Robert Sawyer, a futurist and sci-fi author. "Does that mean that the notion of secure communication, secure transactions, is going to crumble around us in the next one to two decades?" he said.

Bear agreed, suggesting quantum computing might usher in a world beyond security. "You'll have to assume someone out there is going to understand what you're doing, or have access to what you're doing," he said.

Bear also suggested that computing devices will eventually become so small that they will be embedded or painted onto the skin. People will be able to exchange information by shaking hands, he said. As that happens, there will be constant attempts to hack into the embedded devices, steal information and insert information such as advertisements, he said.

He also predicted new computing models based on biology and genomics. The study of the use of biological matter in computing devices is virtually untapped, he said.

Sawyer asked the other writers what will happen to the World Wide Web.

"It's just an interim product like everything else," Bear said.

Arlan Andrews, founder of the Sigma science-fiction think tank, suggested that there will be thousands of interconnected virtual worlds, some on the Web and some using other technology. "You'll be able to switch in and out of all the virtual worlds by blinking your eye or something like that," he said.

There will be private virtual worlds for some transactions, but many of the worlds will be open to anyone, he predicted. There will be virtual organized crime.

The problem for IT security will be how to decipher what's genuine and what's not in these virtual worlds, he said. "Truth-telling technology is going to be very important," he said.

One audience member asked what IT security workers and other security experts can learn from science fiction about assessing risks.

Bear noted that the US Department of Homeland Security has asked the Sigma think tank to look for unexpected risks. "The bullet you don't hear is the one that gets you," he said.

Sawyer blamed "Star Trek" and its swashbuckling Captain James Kirk for some of the failures in the US space program, including the Challenger explosion.

"A whole generation of NASA engineers inspired by 'Star Trek' learned the lesson of Captain Kirk, that is when your engineer says, 'Captain, the engines can't take any more,' the gutsy, manly, winning strategy is to say, 'there are tolerances beyond what the engineer knows about,'" he said.

"The winning strategy is to ignore the risk. 'Star Trek' and science fiction in general, again and again and again, has said ... take the gutsy move, and you'll get to meet the Orion slave girl."

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