Yanek Novack has just successfully hacked into the electronic voting system of one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world. His virtual reality contact lenses flare as he stirs up some homemade tomato sauce and shoots off thickly accented demands via his invisible head-up display. Later, reclining in an easy chair while wearing a black mesh tank top and a gold chain, he tells his minions: "So much win!" After that, he laughs. Nefariously.
In one sense, Novack isn't real. He's the creation of Europol, the European Union's law enforcement agency and Trend Micro, a cybersecurity firm, which hired a creative agency to shoot a fictional web series dealing with digital life and national security in the year 2020. So, in another sense, Novack is very real. He's a composite villain that embodies experts' global cybersecurity fears in the near future.
In the summer of 2012, Novack was nothing but a prediction read between the lines in a white paper authored by the International Cyber Security Protection Alliance (ICSPA), a coalition made up of Europol, Trend Micro, and a number of large companies, like Visa and Lockheed Martin. Launched in late 2011 as a nonprofit public-private partnership, ICSPA now devises cyber security strategies among law enforcement and business alike. When the ICSPA published its vision for the year "2020," its authors highlighted a number of threats and possible disaster scenarios, including the rise of hacktivist anarchists and organized cyber crime rings.
(In the web series, Novack, who got his start as a mercenary in an Eastern European cybergang, employs hacktivists—but may also have more terroristic, and less anarchistic, sympathies.)
The ICSPA paper also took some creative liberties. The main author, Europol, figured that the best way to illustrate its predictions would be to create fictional scenarios showing how the future of cyber threats might impact individuals, businesses, and government. It created a fake country, South Sylvania, and a world in which the desktop and smartphone were old news. Instead, South Sylvanians would rely on Google Glass-like spectacles or contact lens displays.
"When we read through those scenarios, it read like a science fiction novel," explains Trend Micro's vice president of security research, Rik Ferguson. "We decided that the best way to do it justice, and to bring it to a wider audience, was to make a video project out of it."
That video project became "2020," published online a couple of months ago. In nine episodes it describes, in suspenseful cop movie format, what would happen if hackers with malicious intent developed the means to shut down the digital lifeblood of an entire nation.
Ferguson, a tattooed Andrew W.K. look-alike who also plays himself in the show, points out that the plot and setting elements of South Sylvania are based on things that are already happening.
"One of the key predictions or technologies described in the white paper is that we will increasingly have to juggle multiple online identities," he says. "Those identities will become more and more embedded in every aspect of our online lives, with the advent of wearable tech, and in particular, the heads up display type technology."
Because of the growth of the personal data market, and our ongoing exchange of personal information for online goods and services, the ICSPA also imagined something called the "Switch." In order to move among future citizens' financial, social, and official identities, and to exercise some degree of control over the flow of one's information, ICSPA predicted that content service providers would come up with a function (the Switch) that allowed people to wear different digital masks.
But having all of that information in various online profiles leaves that data vulnerable. "Increasingly, over the last three or four years, we've seen criminals going after large online aggregations of data because you get more bang for your buck," Ferguson says. "If you break in and walk out with a million people's information, that's going to take a lot less time that successively hacking a million PCs and hacking that information."
Along with theft of personal data, the web series touches on the shutdown of the financial industry, large-scale theft of intellectual property, and the first fully online election of South Sylvania gone horribly wrong. The first two predictions are solidly rooted in reality: Credit card companies and e-commerce sites are already exposing customer data to breaches, and Chinese hackers steal enormous amounts of intellectual property. The third has yet to materialize, but last year, threat researcher Kyle Wilhoit showed just how vulnerable online public infrastructure was when he created a fake network for a U.S.-based water utility. Within 18 hours, the utility had been hacked by groups around the world.
"We certainly tried to reflect a lot of going on now, which is why we have the strong hacktivism element in the plot. There's the possibility of state-sponsored activity as well," Ferguson says. "The more that a nation begins to rely on solely digital means of anything, of communication, of service provision, of financial transactions, then the more the malicious actor will target those."
But the South Sylvanians also maintain a degree of privacy in our collective future. In the "2020" series, they have personal clouds, which required warrants if a law enforcement officer wanted to snoop inside. In a world that utilizes Big Data more efficiently than ever, personal privacy is also re-negotiated, then maintained as a feature of innovation.
"I think privacy is a living thing, and it's continually being redefined," Ferguson says. "I think we can expect that to continue. It could be that something that I [now] find abhorrent, like tagging citizens at birth, is completely acceptable in 30 years time."
The future of Trend Micro's web videos, though, is looking bright. The firm plans on rolling out more major projects like "2020" throughout the coming year.