Saturday, July 25, 2015

Cyber Risks in a “Connected World” can take human lives and cause physical damage

I believe that the cyber risks are always grossly underestimated or trivialized. Over the last few years due to the rapid digitization of businesses, there has been a growing spate of cyber-attacks the world over. New start-ups offer a panacea of digitized solutions through cloud platforms. With limited budgets and a focus on perfecting their business model, companies need to navigate the tradeoff between the portions of their financial capital that goes into product security as against growing the business.

The next phase of digital evolution is themed “connected” – connected cars, connected homes, and connected humans (with intelligent body parts like wireless enabled pacemakers). As businesses race to bring new connected products or to make intelligent existing products using internet enabled sensors, wireless, cloud management and mobile apps, they still seem to not realize the criticality of fool proofing these systems against cyber threats.

The risks have now extended beyond purely financial and reputation losses to threats which affect human lives.  As the world digitizes, cyber threats that damage property, cause physical harm and even kill will materialize at a scale that is virtually impossible to contain.

An early indication is the recent recall of 1.4m vehicles by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, the world's seventh largest automaker, to fix a vulnerability that allowed hackers to use the cellular network to electronically control vital functions. Functions, which when manipulated could shut the engine down while it was being driven down the highway, take control of the steering wheel and disable the brakes. Similar threats would materialize if hackers were able to find flaws in a wireless pacemakers or other such devices.

The core issue is twofold. Firstly as the connected world becomes individualized,  malicious hackers would find and exploit flaws in products used by individuals or organizations they target. Remotely engineered assassinations may just become a reality.

The second and more dangerous consequence, is of terrorist organizations utilizing vulnerabilities that affect products used by many, cars for example, to launch mass attacks which would instantly cause more damage and widespread chaos, than detonating explosives. Such remote attacks from the Internet will bypass all conventional border security measures.

In a digitized world, cybersecurity and safety become intrinsically linked and as new standards slowly evolve, an immediate concerted attempt must be made by companies to build secure products to protect naïve cyber citizens against all sort of risks.


For a cybercitizen, security should be under the hood, so as to speak. Cybercitizens are unable to determine the extent to which these products are safe to use. Besides building safe products, systems to securely and instantly plug vulnerabilities will need to be perfected.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Cyber scams that target senior citizens in India


A senior citizen’s primary gadget is a mobile phone which in earlier years was used to make/ receive calls and SMSes. With rising Internet penetration, children living in different cities and countries, video calls and rising costs; senior citizens have begun to use alternate communication channels like Whatsapp and Skype. Senior citizens have become easy targets for cybercriminals given their trusting nature and poor understanding on how voice and data services work.  Cybercriminals and Spammers target these four types of communication channels (voice, instant messaging, SMS and internet telephony) to defraud senior citizens. The three most prevalent types of scams are:

Missed Call or One Ring Telephone Scams

The most popular one is the “missed call” scam. A missed call from an international number is made to a senior citizen’s phone. When the senior citizen calls back, the call is connected to a premium rate number where the bill rates are significantly higher as there is a third party service charge for these services added to the bill. Senior citizens end up with large postpaid bills or find their prepaid credit wiped out. The modus operandi of these missed call scams is to ensure that once a call back is received, the caller is kept on the line for several minutes. The longer the duration the more money the scammer makes. To do so, either the caller is looped in an interactive voice response system which tells the caller to wait while the call is connected or the caller is connected to a recorded adult phone message. One senior citizen was so perturbed that she wanted to call the police because she heard a woman being beaten and screaming for help. Fortunately for her, she had limited prepaid credit and the call ran out. Many senior citizens become anxious and literarily rush to their telecommunication service provider only to receive a stoic response that they are not responsible for any calls made or received. To resolve their excess charge they are advised to take up the matter with the third party service provider, usually a dubious adult chat firm in a third world country. For the small sum of money lost, the cost of this pursuit would make it an unviable option with no guarantee of refunds.

Senior citizens can protect themselves by:

1.    Restricting outbound international calling,  if there is no necessity to make overseas call

2.    Ignore short duration missed calls from international destinations

3.    Checking the international dial code for missed numbers before returning the call. If the number originates from a country where they do not expect a call from, then it would be best not to return them

Lottery Type Scams 

In fake lottery scams, senior citizens receive SMSes or Whatsapp messages congratulating them on having won a “big lottery” and asking them to quickly claim their money.  One senior citizens though this was a valid claim because “it was not classified as spam” by the service provider. 40% of spam is not blocked by spam filters and spam filters only help but do not guarantee that a communication is legitimate. Once a request for redeeming the claim is made these scams always ask for either personal information or the payment of an advance fee, which when paid is either followed by a further request for money and the eventual disappearance act by the scamster.

 Senior citizens must not share personal data online and always avoid requests made for money to process a lottery win or to release a parcel, or to send a free gift as these are sure signs of fraudulent behavior. Senior citizens should also consult knowledgeable family members or friends before responding.

Disclosure of Personal Information

Extracting personal information which can later be sold or used to access online back accounts is another type of scam. Scammers pose as officials in position of authority (banks, police, and income tax) or as sellers of credits cards/personal loans using these “roles” to exert sufficient pressure to extract personal and financial data.

Senior citizens should always remember that however convincing the callers are information like bank accounts, financial records and passwords are never sought by authorities or banks.