When telling my students about cybersecurity and the increasing threats as technology becomes connected, rather than start the lecture with tales of tech, I begin with parables of parasites.
Parasites are exceptional at altering their host’s behaviour to increase the likelihood of transmission. A group of researchers studied the fungus Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, a parasite that manipulates the behaviour of arboreal Camponotus leonardi ants. These specialised parasites make the host ant bite onto vegetation before killing them. The fungus doesn’t just get the ants to bite into any part of the plant, but this finely tuned mind control ensures that the ants bite into the vein of the underside of leaves. Furthermore, the ants cling to the leaves on the northern side of saplings, 25 cm above the soil, where temperature and humidity conditions are optimal for further fungal growth. This parasite only takes over the ant’s muscles, leaving it a prisoner in its own body. The last step in the process is the most disturbing. The fungus sprouts a giant spore through the head of the ant, which then rains spores down on the ant colony spreading the fungus even further.
While these zombifying parasites exist in abundance in the insect kingdom, they are less common in mammals. However, if you have ever wondered why you have that ceaseless sugar craving, you might be hosting a behaviour-altering fungus. Candida albicans is a fungus and yeast that lives in the digestive tract of humans and relies on carbohydrates and simple sugars to thrive. When it falls out of balance, it causes us, the host, to crave sugar. Not quite as insidious as a mind-controlling fungus, but overconsumption of sugar has many adverse effects.
Pop quiz (Borrowed from the multiple-time guest on The Innovation Show, Dr Daniel Amen):
What do cats have in common with the following?
Alzheimer’s Disease, Anxiety, Bipolar disorder, Depression, Impulsive behaviour, Schizophrenia, Suicidal thoughts
Toxoplasma gondii, or T. gondii, is a parasite in cat faeces and undercooked food. The parasite infects 40 million Americans, while studies in the UK have estimated that Toxo infects 7-34% of people. An Irish survey revealed the presence of Toxo in around 13% of children. Most of those infected aren’t aware of the infection. While it may present as flu-like symptoms, it is in their brain and muscles. If a pregnant woman becomes infected, she can pass the infection to her developing foetus, which can lead to brain damage or blindness at birth or mental disabilities later in life.
Toxo infects many mammals (like humans), but it can only sexually reproduce in a cat. Now, we know rodents are instinctively afraid of cats and scans of a rodent amygdalae show that if a rat smells just one cat hair, the amygdala lights up like a Christmas tree. Fear of cats has passed on generationally, highlighting how big a behaviour change occurs when Toxo infects a rat or a mouse. Once embedded, Toxo turns the rodent into a cat-seeking missile. By modifying reward circuity in the rat’s brain, the infected rat becomes attracted to the smell of cat urine. Even more insidious, the neurochemical GABA, which regulates fear, is impacted to incite wreckless rat behaviour. Once the cat eats the obliging rat, the parasite reproduces inside the cat, and the cycle continues.
If the cat eats birds or other small creatures, Toxo spreads. Likewise, if humans have outdoor cats as pets, they are vulnerable to Toxo from exposure to the cat.
If you are still with me, you are most likely wondering what this has to do with cybersecurity. So let me connect the dots.
You may have heard that hackers succeeded in hacking Elon Musk’s Starlink internet satellite network using a $25 homemade device. Security researchers have revealed how hardware vulnerabilities allow attackers to access the Starlink system and run custom code on the devices. Starlink (a division of Musk’s SpaceX) encourages hackers to attack its system to uncover security vulnerabilities by offering a bug bounty. We can be sure that Musk and co. Companies employ some of the best engineers on the planet to work in Tesla, Space X, Starlink and Neuralink. The fact that they were hacked so easily should worry us.
“A computer bug is akin to a parasite. It controls the host and manipulates unhealthy behaviour.”
With increased breaches such as the Starlink case and senior-executive awareness of such threats, spending on cyber security has exploded. As everything becomes more connected, the need for cybersecurity increases, but so does the allure of cybercrime. If some of the best engineers find their technology vulnerable to attack with a $25 homemade device, you question the security of a fleet of cars. A computer bug is akin to a parasite. It controls the host and manipulates unhealthy behaviour. Like the poor and or the cat-seeking rat, what if a fleet of self-driving cars or satellites is suddenly weaponised? Machines aside, what happens if the tech can control human movement and the human host becomes a prisoner, like the zombified ant trapped in its own body?
Neuralink is a neurotechnology company that develops implantable brain-computer interfaces (BCIs). BCIs are a magnificent development and a welcome aid for people who lost motor control due to brain diseases. Other BCIs can help amputees to control robotic limbs by using their minds. Neuralink announced that it aimed to make devices to treat serious brain diseases in the short term, with the eventual goal of human enhancement. In addition, security researchers have repeatedly demonstrated how easy it is to hack and control—at distances of up to three hundred feet—many wireless-implanted medical devices, including pacemakers, neurostimulators, and insulin pumps. These incidents point to a real and growing threat.
While I welcome technological advances, I am equally aware of our tech’s vulnerability. On the latest episode of the Innovation Show, we discuss a wide range of tech trends with the CEO of visual capitalist and author of “Signals”, Jeff Desjardins. One of the many stunning infographics from the book highlights the threat of cybercrime below.
As societies become more digitised, we will increasingly code biological cells. Scientists can already programme microorganisms to create proteins and drugs.
A growing number of Internet-connected devices provides more targets for hackers to exploit. The increasing number of chips, sensors, and implants powered by 5g will mean convenience for humanity, a playground of accessible portals (“attack surface”) for hackers.
The future is bright (and a little dark).
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