Will first 'online murder' take place before the end of 2014?

Europol issues a warning about the dangers that come with the so-called Internet of Things

A person sits with a laptop computer
(Image credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

The first "online murder" could take place before the end of the year, according to a cyber security firm based in Washington. The company, IID, was cited by Europol in its latest assessment of the dangers posed by online crime.

The European policing agency raises concerns about the risks that come with the so-called Internet of Things. With more objects and even parts of our critical infrastructure connected to and controlled by the internet, Europol warns of "physical injury and possible death" resulting from an online attack.

How exactly might an 'online murder' happen?

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IID predicts that a murder will happen by someone hacking a device connected to the internet. It points out that the US Food and Drug Administration has already warned the healthcare industry about 300 medical devices at risk of cyber attacks, including pacemakers, implantable insulin pumps, ventilators and defibrillators. Former US vice president Dick Cheney even underwent surgery to turn off the wireless function on his pacemaker to prevent it from being hacked.

Was Cheney being over-cautious?

Despite literally being a scenario from the television series Homeland, it is "a pretty valid fear", says the Washington Post. Security researchers have long warned that IT security on medical devices is lacking and that malware runs "rampant" in hospital environments, says the newspaper. The late computer security expert Barnaby Jack was at the forefront of this research, demonstrating how an insulin pump could hacked to administer lethal dosages from up to 300ft away and how pacemakers could be hacked to deliver deadly electric shocks.

Is it only medical technology at risk?

No. One prominent US security analyst said last year that it was "relatively easy" to hack into the control system of a car. Richard Clarke, the former US national coordinator for security, infrastructure protection and counter-terrorism, told the Huffington Post it was possible that government intelligence agencies knew how to remotely seize control of a car, allowing them to accelerate the vehicle, throw on the brakes or launch an air bag. "You can do some really highly destructive things now, through hacking a car, and it's not that hard," he said.

Will an 'online murder' really happen before the end of the year?

Of course this is impossible to know, but one thing is for certain: the Internet of Things is on the rise, with more and more medical devices being linked to the internet. According to recent research from [5]Cisco, the number of internet-connected devices, including phones and computers, will rise from 13 billion in 2013 to around 50 billion by 2020. "To put this into perspective, today 80 'things' – including consumer electronics, machine tools, industrial equipment, cars, and appliances – connect to the internet for the first time every second. By 2020 this will expand to 250 new devices every second," said Cisco. Europol says that with this increase, we can also expect to see more targeted attacks on existing and emerging infrastructures, including new forms of data theft and extortion, such as locking people out of their smarthomes or smartcars until a ransom is paid.

What is being done to prevent cyber attacks?

Europol says a new diverse approach will be needed to combat cyber crime, such as stronger cross-border cooperation between law enforcement and more public-private partnerships. The amount and types of digital forensics resources required by law enforcement agencies need to "adapt and grow accordingly", while policy-makers need to "stay abreast of the latest developments" to ensure that "effective, efficient and balanced legislation and regulations are in place", it says. In the US, the Centre for Internet Security is also developing security control guidelines to reduce cyber risks in medical devices.

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