Whether it was a billion compromised Yahoo accounts or state-sponsored Russian hackers muscling in on the US election, this past year saw hacks of unprecedented scale and temerity. And if history is any guide, next year should yield more of the same.
It’s hard to know for certain what lies ahead, but some themes began to present themselves toward the end of 2016 that will almost certainly continue well into next year. And the more we can anticipate them, the better we can prepare. Here’s what we think 2017 will hold.
Given how frequently the US has used massive flying robots to kill people, perhaps it’s no surprise that smaller drones are now turning deadly, too—this time in the hands of America’s enemies. In October the New York Times reported that in the first known case, US-allied Kurdish soldiers were killed by a small drone the size of a model airplane, rigged with explosives. As drones become smaller, cheaper, and more powerful, the next year will see that experiment widened into a full-blown tactic for guerrilla warfare and terrorism. What better way to deliver deadly ordnance across enemy lines or into secure zones of cities than with remote-controlled accuracy and off-the-shelf hardware that offers no easy way to trace the perpetrator? The US government is already buying drone-jamming hardware. But as with all IEDs, the arms race between flying consumer grade bombs and the defenses against them will likely be a violent game of cat-and-mouse.
When the FBI earlier this year demanded that Apple write new software to help crack its own device—the iPhone 5c of dead San Bernadino terrorist Rizwan Farook—it fired the first shots in a new chapter of the decades-long war between law enforcement and encryption. And when it backed off that request, saying it had found its own technique to crack the phone, it only delayed any resolution. It’s only a matter of time until the FBI or other cops make another legal demand that an encryption-maker assist in cracking its protections for users, setting the conflict in motion again. In fact, in October the FBI revealed in October that another ISIS-linked terrorist, the man who stabbed ten people in a Minnesota mall, used an iPhone. Depending on what model iPhone it is, that locked device could spark Apple vs. FBI, round two, if the bureau is determined enough to access the terrorist’s data. (It took three months after the San Bernadino attack for the FBI’s conflict with Apple to become public, and that window hasn’t passed in the Minnesota case.) Sooner or later, expect another crypto clash.
Two months have passed since the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security stated what most of the private sector cybersecurity world already believed: That the Kremlin hacked the American election, breaching the Democratic National Committee and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and spilling their guts to WikiLeaks. Since then, the White House has promised a response to put Russia back in check, but none has surfaced. And with less than a month until the inauguration of Putin’s preferred candidate—one who has buddied up to the Russian government at every opportunity and promised to weaken America’s NATO commitments—any deterrent effect of a retaliation would be temporary at best. In fact, the apparent success of Russia’s efforts—if, as CIA and FBI officials have now both told the Washington Post, Trump’s election was the hackers’ goal—will only embolden Russia’s digital intruders to try new targets and techniques. Expect them to replicate their influence operations ahead of elections next year in Germany, the Netherlands, and France, and potentially to even try new tricks like data sabotage or attacks on physical infrastructure.
Though the US intelligence community—including the FBI, NSA, and CIA—has unanimously attributed multiple incidents of political hacking to Russian government-sponsored attackers, President-elect Donald Trump has remained skeptical. Furthermore, he has repeatedly cast doubt on digital forensics as an intelligence discipline, saying things like, “Once they hack, if you don’t catch them in the act you’re not going to catch them. They have no idea if it’s Russia or China or somebody.” Trump has also caused a stir by declining daily intelligence briefings. Beyond just the current situation with Russia, Trump’s casual dismissal of intelligence agency findings is creating an unprecedented dissonance between the Office of the President and the groups that bring it vital information about the world. Current and former members of the intelligence community told WIRED in mid-December that they find Trump’s attitude disturbing and deeply concerning. If the President-elect permanently adopts this posture, it could irrevocably hinder the role of intelligence agencies in government. President Obama, for one, says he is hopeful that the situation is temporary, since Trump has not yet felt the full responsibility of the presidency. “I think there is a sobering process when you walk into the Oval Office,” Obama said recently in a press conference. “There is just a whole different attitude and vibe when you’re not in power as when you are in power.” If Trump does eventually embrace the intelligence community more fully, the next question will be whether it can move on from what has already transpired.
This was the year of Internet of Things botnets, in which malware infects inconspicuous devices like routers and DVRs and then coordinates them to overwhelm an online target with a glut of internet traffic, in what’s known as a disrupted denial of service attack (DDoS). Botnets have traditionally been built with compromised PCs, but poor IoT security has made embedded devices an appealing next frontier for hackers, who have been building massive IoT botnets. The most well-known example in 2016, called Mirai, was used this fall to attack and temporarily bring down individual websites, but was also turned on Internet Service Providers and internet-backbone companies, causing connectivity interruptions around the world. DDoS attacks are used by script kiddies and nation states alike, and as long as the pool of unsecured computing devices endlessly grows, a diverse array of attackers will have no disincentive from turning their DDoS cannons on internet infrastructure. And it’s not just internet connectivity itself. Hackers already used a DDoS attack to knock out central heating in some buildings in Finland in November. The versatility of DDoS attacks is precisely what makes them so dangerous. In 2017, they’ll be more prevalent than ever.
Ransomware attacks have become a billion-dollar business for cybercriminals and are on the rise for individuals and institutions alike. Attackers already use ransomware to extort money from hospitals and corporations that need to regain control of their systems quickly, and the more success attackers have, the more they are willing to invest in development of new techniques. A recent ransomware version called Popcorn Time, for example, was experimenting with offering victims an alternative to paying up—if they could successfully infect two other devices with the ransomware. And more innovation, plus more disruption, will come in 2017. Ransomware attacks on financial firms have already been rising, and attackers may be emboldened to take on large banks and central financial institutions. And IoT ransomware could crop up in 2017, too. It may not make sense for a surveillance camera, which might not even have an interface for users to pay the ransom, but could be effective for devices that sync with smartphones or tie in to a corporate network. Attackers could also demand money in exchange for ceasing an IoT botnet-driven DDoS attack. In other words, ransomware attacks are going to get bigger in every possible sense of the word.