Through the eyes of a master hacker turned security expert, William Langewiesche chronicles the rise of the Dark Net—where weapons, drugs, and information are bought, sold, and hacked—and learns how high the stakes have really become.
I. THE BACK DOOR
His name is not Opsec, but I will call him that to guard his privacy. In webspace he is known as a grand master of the dark art of hacking. He is one of a small elite—maybe a hundred, maybe fewer—all of whom are secretive and obsessed with security. They do not talk about their work with their families. They generally do not talk to the press. Nonetheless, through friends of friends, Opsec agreed to speak and to introduce me to his perspectives. In “meatspace,” as he and others like him call the real world, Opsec lives in a metropolitan area in a little wooden house by a railroad track. He is in his mid-30s, physically imposing, and not a geek. He hangs out in a local bar, where the regulars know vaguely that he works with computers.
He is a fast talker when he’s onto a subject. His mind seems to race most of the time. Currently he is designing an autonomous system for detecting network attacks and taking action in response. The system is based on machine learning and artificial intelligence. In a typical burst of words, he said, “But the automation itself might be hacked. Is the A.I. being gamed? Are you teaching the computer, or is it learning on its own? If it’s learning on its own, it can be gamed. If you are teaching it, then how clean is your data set? Are you pulling it off a network that has already been compromised? Because if I’m an attacker and I’m coming in against an A.I.-defended system, if I can get into the baseline and insert attacker traffic into the learning phase, then the computer begins to think that those things are normal and accepted. I’m teaching a robot that ‘It’s O.K.! I’m not really an attacker, even though I’m carrying an AK-47 and firing on the troops.’ And what happens when a machine becomes so smart it decides to betray you and switch sides?”