It was a warm summer Friday in the year 2025.
I was on the train, coming back from work when I got a surprising pop-up reminder on my super phone. I had completely forgotten that, a few weeks ago, I invited a friend of mine for dinner at my house, and he would be there in an hour.
Knowing he’s a big fan of homemade food and doesn’t eat at restaurants, I had to cook myself. No worries, I though. Thanks to advanced technology, I could do my grocery shopping online and pick up the stuff on my way home.
I wasn’t sure what was in my fridge but that was easy to find out. I logged in to my home network, connected to my fridge, peeked inside and made a list for my grocery shopping. I looked for pomegranate juice, his favorite, and found it in there, but it wasn’t clear how much was left in the bottle. I stretched my super phone’s screen and zoomed the fridge camera on the bottle. Aha…, now I could see better. The bottle was almost empty, so I had to buy another one.
I did my grocery shopping online using my super phone, drove through and picked up my bags in less than 15 minutes. When I got close to home, using my super phone’s command center, I turned on the oven to preheat it. I had an hour before my friend’s arrival, so I cooked his favorite dish, set up the table and got everything ready in time.
When he arrived, the dinner was ready and not much was left to be done. We had a pleasant evening together. I whispered to myself, “Technology is great!”
A week later, I woke up in the early morning to excessive heat in my house. I jumped out of bed and grabbed the air conditioner’s remote control, only to find out it wasn’t working.
I rushed to the kitchen to pour myself some cold water from the fridge, but to my surprise, the faucet was powered off. I was able to switch the lights on so it wasn’t a power issue.
“Someone please tell me what is going on!” I thought.
After few minutes, I realized all appliances with an internet connection were powered off. I frantically ran to my super phone, hoping to call friends, check my news feeds, or anything that could help me understand what’s happening.
I froze out after reading the message on my phone’s screen: “Your home network is hacked and everything is now under my control.” The hacker requested a hefty ransom to release the control back to me. I kept on reading and the hacker advised me not to take “stupid” actions like calling the police. Instead, I was told to be at a public phone booth near my house to receive instructions on how to transfer the money.
As I was hopelessly checking my now-dysfunctional home (IP) phone, I was thinking of the good old days when phones were simple electronic devices that would connect through the twisted pair cables to the phone companies. They were less sophisticated, but definitely more reliable.
I shouted, “Technology, you can sometimes make my life miserable!”
Back to present, the story above may look like an episode of a sci-fi TV show, but in reality, it’s not very unlikely to happen. We live in a world where speedy adoption of new technology is becoming a norm. Thousands of gadget-frenzied early adopters line up, long before the stores open, to buy the latest smartphones on the very first day they become available.
Interestingly, the “gadget rush” of today is somewhat reminiscent of the gold rush of the 19th century. What’s old is new again: a crowd that rushes for the glittery commodity without properly understanding and/or assessing the risks.
Three years ago, I bought my first “network ready” HDTV and Blu-ray player. What do you think I did right after unpacking them? Watched a high definition movie?
Not exactly. I hooked the devices up to the internet and applied the manufacturer updates. Having practiced as an information security professional for many years, I wasn’t comfortable leaving them on the network unpatched. Since then, I’ve been wondering how many home appliances are connected to the internet and which percentage of them are patched regularly? I’d guess five percent or less.
Network-enabled home appliances are the reality of near future, primarily because humans like the convenience and will pay for it. Such advanced appliances will likely listen to our voice command when we are home and when outside. We will be able to easily connect to them and run remote commands.
It sounds great, but for a moment, let me play the devil’s advocate. Advanced technology, due to its complex nature, often brings more vulnerabilities with itself.
Imagine a world where millions of potentially vulnerable home appliances are connected to the internet (or whatever the worldwide network is called then). Average users most likely will not check if their appliances, which may have the same — or even higher — level of sophistication as today’s computers, constantly receive the manufacturer’s updates.
For a moment, think about the huge attack surface when there are millions of vulnerable home appliances and how scary it would be if there was an exploit kit to remotely control your fridge and another one to render your dishwasher dysfunctional.
If today’s hackers can go as far as stealing our data or remotely controlling our computers, the hackers of the future will have the opportunity to penetrate deeper into our homes and fiddle even further with our privacy. This means the psychological effects of such intrusions may be more disruptive financial losses for some.
We, as humans, drive the technology vehicle on a one-way street and keep accelerating without thinking, “Would we be able to stop the vehicle if we figured out something’s gone terribly wrong?”