Book Review: Future Crimes by Marc Goodman

Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It by Marc Goodman is one of those non-fiction books that is both scary and reassuring at the same time. I picked this up mainly because I have a slight IT background and I try to stay abreast of what is going in the world of digital insecurity; only an idiot thinks that something online is secure. I knew the connected world was unsecure and full of risk, I did not fully appreciate just how unsecure and full of risk it was until reading this book.

The book itself is 392 pages of text divided into 3 parts consisting of 18 chapters with an appendix, notes, and index but no bibliography. The three parts of the book are topical, essentially where we are at, where we are going, and what to do about it.

Part one details all the myriad ways, and they are legion, that the modern information superhighway is riddles with security flaws and ways to make criminals lives easier. This ranges from poorly implemented and coded software, to individual laziness, to the methods whereby companies exploit users to make billions and provide “free” services such as email and search. None of this is really news to anybody who pays even the slightest bit of attention to goings on in the tech world and it should be news to the average person either. This is especially true given the high profile hacks and exploitation of security loopholes such as the Target hack of 2013 or the Sony hack last year. Modern information systems are incredibly vulnerable and we ignore this vulnerability at our own peril. One of the most interesting things he mentions is people’s penchant to trust what we see on the screens that are ubiquitous in the world even when they conflict with the evidence of our own senses.

The second part of the book discusses the ways in which organized, semi-organized, and even unorganized crime take advantage of our fragile electronic infrastructure to execute increasingly more lucrative crimes against the vast majority of honest people who attempt to use the internet and electronics to go about their daily lives and make them easier or more efficient. Such things include micro-thefts from bank and credit accounts to identity theft on a mass scale, to murder for hire and everything in between. He discusses the Dark Web at length, which is something many people have perhaps heard of but he explains it at length. The description of Silk Road and how this was THE place to go for anything illicit for several years before being taken down only to be replaced by more and even better and more anonymous dark sites is nothing short of eye-opening. I found it especially important that it is acknowledged and detailed that not only criminals exploit insecure electronic infrastructure, governments do it too, and also on a massive scale. Whether you love or hate Edward Snowden and Julian Assange they made it common knowledge that most governments are no more trustworthy than the criminals they are notionally supposed to help protect us from.

The final and shortest part discusses the things and ways in which electronic security can be increased. He acknowledges that perfect security does not exist but there are things that can and should be done at an individual, corporate, and government level that can make computing more “trustworthy” and that given the coming risks of emerging technologies we better start now before it is too late.

There is something of an alarmist tone to much of the book but it is an alarmist tone that I am convinced has some basis in reality. The news constantly reminds us with every hack or botnet reported that modern computers and networks are Swiss cheese too easily penetrated by those with ill will. It may be theoretically possible to crash a stock market and damage an economy or disrupt traffic and power through the internet now but sooner rather than later somebody will figure out how to do these things and more on a massive scale by exploiting the inherent vulnerabilities in current information systems and then after the banks fail or hundreds or thousands are killed or injured in traffic chaos or blackouts, it will be too late to close that door. The main message of the book is that it is past time we got proactive about computer security because if we do not soon it will be too late and that particular barn door will be very costly in terms of lives and money to shut once it has been forced open.

This book should be required reading for anyone interested in the ways that modern computing and networks makes us unsafe. That includes everyone. Even if you don’t own a cell phone or PC computers still rule your life and we are all just one mouse click away from ruin. I highly recommend this provocative and thought provoking book.