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Microsoft Blue Hat Fall '08: Security Researchers Want To Hack You

If you think the future of hacking may be things like Web applications, social networks, or even infiltrating "The Cloud," you might want to look in a mirror. Sure, all of those things will be targeted, but one of the next frontiers for exploration will be hacking the mind.
If you think the future of hacking may be things like Web applications, social networks, or even infiltrating "The Cloud," you might want to look in a mirror. Sure, all of those things will be targeted, but one of the next frontiers for exploration will be hacking the mind.It's common knowledge that everything posted on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, as well as nearly every Google search, reflects a pretty good picture of what's going on within your mind, and life. I mean, if you have a strange green fungus appear on your big toe, what's the first thing most of us do? We go to Google and search until we find a remedy. Then, on those social networks, published for the world is all of our interests, circles of friends and business associates, religious and political points of view, books we've read, places we've been, work history, and anything else needed to create a dossier.

Now, just imagine the power of aggregating, if not actually correlating, all of the information we've voluntarily posted about ourselves online. You may as well leave behind a printout of your thoughts and state-of-mind wherever you go.

This, apparently, has not gone unnoticed by a couple of security researchers, and Dark Reading's Kelly Jackson Higgins just posted a story, "New Tool Hacks the Psyche," based on some upcoming research to be detailed at the Microsoft Blue Hat Summit this fall.

In case you're not familiar, Blue Hat is a twice-annual shindig hosted by Microsoft at its headquarters and aims to create a "relaxed" exchange of ideas between Microsoft's internal security teams, and those security researchers who have been pounding on Microsoft software for the past 15 years in order to find vulnerabilities.

However, security researchers Nitesh Dhanjani and Akshay Aggarwal have been researching vulnerabilities that have little to do with software. It's how your actual online persona and activity can be used to hack into your psyche for intelligence-gathering and even as a way to influence your behavior.

As Higgin's quotes from her story:


"This is the next generation of hacking: 'I want to hack you, not your app,'" says Dhanjani, who is a senior manager with Ernst & Young.

The researchers are building a prototype "emotion dashboard" that gathers feeds from a user's online presence -- from Flickr, blogs, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, etc. -- into a single RSS feed that populates the dashboard. The tool is based on Microsoft's Silverlight Media Web plug-in, and lets you basically glean a person's emotions based on correlations among his or her online postings and activities.

Maybe the name of this project should be Total Awareness Lite. Don't get me wrong, I'm a fan of social networks and have the Facebook and LinkedIn accounts, and Twitter-stream to prove it ... but it's exactly this type of research that makes me nostalgically dream of the days gone by when we had to dial individual Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) and all of our tracks couldn't be reassembled to create a giant model that represents our individual psyches, a sort of highly targeted data mining of your soul.

The privacy implications of this are obvious, and don't need to be stated. And I hope everyone graduating from college right now, and who plans to have a successful business or political career, realizes that their every online move may, and probably will, be used against them one day. It will be interesting to see the first senatorial campaign brought down by a Tweet sent at 2 a.m. some Saturday morning.

Other than not using social media, I can't think of a way to avoid the risks.

In fact, I suspect the best tactic is to actually embrace social media, and create the online persona that reflects you, and defend your online image. There are already a slew of mini-brothers and big brothers alike collecting information about you -- every Web site you visit, every movie you watch on cable, every noncash purchase you've ever conducted, and your every cell phone tower triangulated move. So it may not be a bad idea finishing off the picture with your true colors and have a say in crafting what they already think they know about you.

Did I mention you can track my every move at Twitter?