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Automation & Pervasive, Connected Technology to Pose Cyber Threats in 2030

A project to look at potential cybersecurity threats in a decade sees hackers and marketers sending spam directly to our vision, while attackers' automated systems adapt faster than defenses.

RSA CONFERENCE 2021 – Business processes managed by machines. A national digital fiat currency. Pervasive connected devices in clothing fabric and as implants. Augmented reality displayed directly onto people's contact lenses.

This is the technological landscape that nations, citizens, and businesses will have to contend with — and secure — in a decade, according to Project 2030, a future-looking effort to predict the future landscape for cybersecurity presented at the RSA Conference this week by researchers at software security firm Trend Micro and Oxford University.

Using a fictional nation, New San Joban, as the setting, the project maintains that the classes of cyber threats we know today — such as unauthorized access, data manipulation, denial of service — will not change but will pose a significantly different impact on a more pervasive and connected landscape. People will find themselves locked out of their houses by hackers, citizens will fight to keep their data and digital selves protected, businesses will use blockchain technology to detect anomalies in automated processes, and pervasive marketing and influence operations will appear right in front of people's eyes.

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Predicting the future is difficult, and the report is not intended as a precise picture of the next decade but to highlight the three major trends in the future — automation, connectedness, and pervasive integration — and how people, businesses, and nations should think about securing the technologies, says Victoria Baines, a visiting research fellow at Oxford University.

"It is possible to anticipate the evolution of cybercrime by mapping what we already know about criminals and other hostile actors against plausible developments in emerging technologies," she says. "Even though we can all agree that the future is uncertain, uncertainty is no longer a good reason for failing to prepare for future cyber threats."

The Project 2030 report and a series of future blog posts are spearheaded by Baines and Rik Ferguson, vice president of research at Trend Micro. The research is based on a similar project launched in 2012 to predict the future cybersecurity landscape in 2020. A review of the previous report found that 9 out of 19 predictions for technology became mainstream in 2020, and 17 predictions had become true to some extent.

For 2030, the main cybersecurity threats include disinformation delivered to more pervasive devices by more targeted algorithms — SEO on steroids — while tampering with supply chains could become the next ransomware epidemic. With technology even further ingrained in people's lives, social engineering, aggressive marketing, and information operations will have a greater impact. Finally, the report predicts the use of automation and machine learning will become pervasive among cybercriminals and bad actors.

A survey helped guide the predictions, with 63% of respondents agreeing with the statement that by 2030 "cybersecurity will largely consist of AI offense and defense" and that "every day will be zero-day."

"[I]t is reasonable to assume that highly automated reconnaissance, target selection, penetration testing and delivery will be attractive to cybercriminals, and that they will seek to maximize the effectiveness and efficiency of their efforts by using tools that are capable of unsupervised learning," the report states. "Based on what we already know of criminal markets for Crime as a Service (CaaS), we may expect to see illicit retail of AI-enabled tools that offer individuals with little or no specialist technical skill the opportunity to run a cybercriminal enterprise."

Quantum computing and the power to decrypt data encrypted with current algorithms also pose a threat, but one that will highlight the differences between countries with deep technological roots and those without. 

"It is unrealistic in the extreme to assume that the advances described in the narratives will be evenly distributed in all parts of the world," Baines says. "Taking quantum computing as just one example — the world's largest technology companies and the best resourced research institutes are the pioneers in this space ... so the balance of quantum power will be held in a small number of geographical locations."

Privacy is one future that looks positive. Project 2030 estimates that, within 10 years, technologies like the Solid specification developed by Tim Berners-Lee and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which protect a person's data and only allow companies temporary access, will become the rule rather than the exception. T

"There is no reason to expect that the world's population will be desensitized to these issues in the coming decade," Baines says.

How well will the report's predictions stand up? The authors cite the well-worn axiom — often attributed to Stanford Research Institute's Roy Amara — that technology's impact is overestimated in the short term and underestimated in the long term, but even so, the narrative scenarios cited in the report span the spectrum from probably to science fiction. 

Take neural implants that allow programmable feeling and senses, which the narrative discusses in terms of a teenager begging his mother to allow him for gaming. While Elon Musk's Neuralink is advancing the technology of brain-machine interfaces, the idea has slowly evolved over decades, particularly because of the current invasiveness of the surgery. The late author Michael Crichton used fears of a similar technology as the key technological plot device in his book The Terminal Man, published nearly 50 years ago. 

Ubiquitous augmented reality in contact lenses is more likely to happen but unlikely to become a reality in a decade.

Yet, even so, the threats — if not addressed by stakeholders — are real. Project 2030 is a warning that for companies and businesses, a little science fiction can go a long way.

Veteran technology journalist of more than 20 years. Former research engineer. Written for more than two dozen publications, including CNET News.com, Dark Reading, MIT's Technology Review, Popular Science, and Wired News. Five awards for journalism, including Best Deadline ... View Full Bio

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