Top 10 dangerous technologies

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Top 10 dangerous technologies

This week we've decided to look at the top technology threats facing society.

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Honourable mention: Linux

Iain Thomson: Cards on the table; I'm a Linux admirer. I love the compact, well crafted nature of the code and the free software model. I sneer at those who eschew Firefox and think Emacs is a work of genius. But the fact remains that for a lot of people Linux is a dangerous idea.

There are millions of IT workers who studied (reasonably) hard for their MSCE and have built their lives around the commercial software model. Then comes a Finnish bloke who throws their whole life into a spin.

Free software works, never doubt that. But commercial software pays the bills a lot faster and there are millions of people who depend on it for their next paycheck. I fear for them sometimes, envisaging times when people will hold cardboard signs up in the streets reading “Will debug Windows for food.”

Shaun Nichols: I believe Iain just lobbed what we sometimes refer to as a 'flame grenade.' Seeing Linux listed as a 'threat' is no doubt going to bring more than a few angry responses from the open-source community. No doubt there are many companies and developers who have made a lot of money in developing open-source software. But, like everything from a Walkman to a butter knife, there is a danger.

I'm a huge fan of projects such as Firefox and OpenOffice that have devoted followings of very talented developers, but the sheer volume of abandoned projects on sites such as SourceForge shows that yes, sometimes the free, open project isn't really the best option. A labour of love is great, but sometimes you need a paid developer to get things done.

And then there's the problem that can arise when businesses migrate. CEOs moving to a free software offering to save costs can open new risks for security breaches. If your IT staff is unfamiliar with a system, they are going to be less likely to find possible security risks that could lead to a catastrophic breach. That's not to say that companies should abandon newer, open-source systems, but they should make sure that the structure and knowledge to support the new system is in place, open-source or not.

Honourable mention- Media players

Shaun Nichols: How can a simple media player be dangerous? Look no further than the screen and you'll have your answer.

Operating most media players requires the user to look down at the screen, which then takes your attention away from things like oncoming traffic. Just as using a mobile phone while driving can cause an accident, so can navigating the menu of your media player.

Or say you're walking across the street while selecting a playlist. You may not notice that oncoming taxi and the next thing you know they're pulling shards of your hip out of the windscreen.

There's also the crime factor. When riding things like buses and trains, those white headphones on your iPod sort of like a big flashing sign that reads 'mug me.'

Iain Thomson: On the latter point I have an iPod but don't use the headphones not because of the fear of mugging, but because they're lousy. They have a pitiful bass response, poor sound range and leak like nobody's business – you can always tell an iPod user with the white headphones on a bus or plane because they're the one 'sharing' their music with everyone else.

But on the large point Shaun has it right. We spend far too much time with our heads down trying to find a good track and not enough time looking where we're going while using media players. It's hardly surprising that New York state planned to ban people using the things while crossing the road, although legislation seems to be going a bit far.

10. Videoconferencing

Iain Thomson: Back in the day I did some writing for a videoconferencing firm and was appalled that the managers couldn't see what a disruptive technology this was. They saw it as just a phone call with pictures, but it's more than that.

Videoconferencing, or to use the modern jargon telepresence, can be very dangerous for a variety of reasons. Primarily it gives the illusion of meeting face to face, but you miss out on so much ancillary detail.

As politicians show us every day you can look good on a screen and still be several flying buttresses short of a full cathedral. Sure, the person on the screen looks professional but for all you know they are naked from the waist down, with a bottle of Scotch just out of sight and a dead hooker in the bedroom.

Secondly business will suffer if we're all communicating by screen. Sure, the accounts department hates business trips but the fact of the matter is they get things done. All the telepresence in the world can't beat two people sitting in a room and chewing the fat about everything and nothing before signing a deal. Would Steve Jobs and have got together and forged Apple via telepresence? I doubt it.

Shaun Nichols: I'm sure Woz is a big fan of anything that lets a person attend an important meeting without having to take off his knee or elbow pads between Segway adventures, but that's beside the point.

When Iain first suggested this one I laughed a bit, but it really is a legitimate concern for the false sense of presence it creates. Just as a boss loses touch with an employee if he or she simply shows up to the morning meeting then retreats to a corner office, so does one lose touch when relying too heavily of teleconferencing.

Simply because you can see the person on the screen does not mean you are connecting with them face to face. While it is a step up from the standard conference call, telepresence is most certainly not an adequate substitute for meeting up in person.

Plus there's the danger that you suddenly have to stand up and everyone at the home office realises you wear humorously patterned Bermuda shorts to work.

9. Robotic weapons

Shaun Nichols: Seeing as how computers can have trouble doing things like opening a spreadsheet or playing back a movie, it's a bit unnerving to think that people are also trying to make them operate guns.

Robotics are already in use for things like defusing bombs or tools, but countries such as South Korea are now moving, armed machines for things such as guard duty.

Maybe it's because I've seen one too many Terminator movies, but I'm less than comfortable with the idea that a simple programming error could possibly result in a hail of gunfire.

Sort of gives a new meaning to the phrase "blue screen of death."

Iain Thomson: I too am waiting eagerly for the next Terminator instalment but there's a serious point to this nomination – computers are lousy at ethical decisions.

I'd advise readers to check out the ABC Warriors in the excellent comic 2000AD for a fun version of why robots make poor soldiers. The leader Hammerstein puzzles over the logic of warfare – how it's fine to raise animals and then kill them for food but not children, and his musings on the difference between enemy combatants and refugees has relevence to the current wars in Sudan, Iraq and Central Asia.

Like it or not robots are going to play an increasing role in modern warfare. Already pilots in the US remotely over the skies of Afghanistan and Iraq, drop bombs on targets and then go home to play Little League with their kids. It saves lives of the pilots, but I fear the next logical step – taking humans out of the loop all together.

Although other species such as ants and chimps conduct warfare humans have made it one of their métiers. To go to war and kill our fellow humans is bad enough. To hand that over to machines strikes me as both a profound lack of responsibility and a very dangerous step in evolution.

8. Plug-ins

Iain Thomson: Take a standard showroom car and it'll do the job on the roads. Now add chipping hardware to the engine, a nitrous oxide feeder system, an overdrive unit and some skinny tires and you've an organ donation waiting to happen. It's very similar to the plug-in market.

The willingness of people to add plug-ins from developers they have no knowledge of shocks and saddens me. Sure, there are some great bits of code out there that can make browsing a better experience but there are also plenty of extras on offer that are a security nightmare and have undergone about as much in-depth testing as a Simon Cowell reject.

Security vendors wail and gnash their teeth at the willingness of people to add bits of code to their applications with nary a thought for what they are doing to their systems. If I was a malware writer I'd forget the operating system and concentrate on a flashy little plug-in that just happens to steal all your data as well.

Shaun Nichols: Not only is there a danger from the plug-ins themselves, but there are also new risks opened by the applications they can link to.

Microsoft or Mozilla may have already patched a dangerous hole in the browser, but what about the third-party applications that are used to open other file types? This can allow an attacker to place malicious files on a web page, but still target a third party component such as a music player or document viewer. Suddenly, a flaw in or becomes a threat to Internet Explorer or Safari.

Malware writers have long used this idea to perform attacks. The ActiveX system used by Internet Explorer to link up with third-party applications is a for exploits. Certainly users should make sure that not only do they keep their browser and operating system updated, but also the third-party applications that are used to automatically run downloaded software. Developers also need to be on top of checking for and patching any possible security vulnerability. These days, nearly every program can be remotely targeted for attack through the browser.

7. Peer to peer (P2P) technology

Shaun Nichols: Imagine a system where people send each other boxes of food at random, each person will receive some food from an unknown source which they will then eat and share amongst their family.

If you had no idea who was making that food or what they put in it, you'd be more than a bit reluctant to eat it, wouldn't you?

This is a lot like the risk posed by P2P networking. Just as taking candy from strangers is dangerous, downloading and opening software packages from strangers can be dangerous. File-sharing services are some of the best places to pick up malware infections. Even Mac users have been by malware from P2P networks.

Not only is P2P good for spreading malware, it's also good for managing those infections. Botnets such as and use peer-to-peer techniques to manage their hoards of infected systems.

Iain Thomson: P2P is a genuinely useful technology, despite what the record companies would like you to think. It enables efficient transport of large files and makes a lot of business models work.

But from a security standpoint it's highly dangerous. After all, you're downloading what you hope is the right file from someone you don't know. Given the fact that I check with the sender before opening every email attachment the idea of downloading via P2P gives me the willies, and sends security buffs wild.

P2P could be safe, if we had a decent system of reputation ranking online. People's online habits could be correlated into a system whereby users could tell if they were trustworthy – something that would not only make P2P much safer but help overall online commerce. Until then I'll stick to legitimate downloads thanks.

6. Email

Iain Thomson: Don't get me wrong, email is a great invention that bypasses all the dead tree, postage stamps and bored postal worker walking down the path nonsense and provides instant communication. But there are plenty of dangers to it too.

Anyone who has used email has experienced the 'oh no' moment when they realise they have sent the missive to someone who shouldn't have got it. And once you click send there's nothing you can do about it.

A case in point. An acquaintance composed a long email about the failings of my girlfriend's ex and sent it to a friend, so he thought. In fact, he'd sent it to the subject of his ire. In a panic he called the subject and asked him to delete it without reading it. Did he? Of course not, like any normal human being he read it and things have been uncomfortable between them ever since.

But email has another failing; it lacks expression. What in conversation would come across as witty irony can be highly insulting in text. Emoticons (horrible phrase I know) barely help. Sticking LOL at the end of a bitchy email doesn't soften the blow, it makes it worse.

Shaun Nichols: It seems like every day we hear about some or marketing representative who made a mistake with email and left a lot of people very, very angry.

Email has given many new ways for people to embarrass themselves. Sure, with snail mail there's still the chance that you print the wrong address on your wedding invitations or something along those lines, but the chances of committing a serious blunder with a large number of letters is far, far less than that of email.

Security experts also warn of possible privacy and data breaches from email addresses. A careless user may attach the wrong file and disclose financial figures, or an incorrect autofill could result in sensitive information being sent to a family member or, even worse, a colleague at a competing business.

Then of course there's the legal headache that arises when some careless person inevitably forwards a crude or offensive email that angers or offends someone else. Many companies have horror stories of having to pay out big settlements just because one idiot thought it would be funny to forward a joke to everyone in the office.

Read on to page two for the top five!

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