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Hacking for Humanity

Far from being isolated in cyberspace, attacks can now have devastating consequences in the physical world. One way to prevent such outcomes, surprisingly, could be to promote widespread adoption of hacking itself.

CAMBRIDGE – “Life,” Oscar Wilde famously said, “imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.” In the case of Sony Pictures’ movie The Interview, the world found itself confronted with a further iteration: life imitating art imitating life. The movie’s release sparked international intrigue, drama, and shadowy geopolitical power struggles. It even prompted a grave US Presidential address – all for a simple case of hacking.

Hacking into information systems is nothing new; it goes hand in hand with the emergence of telecommunications. One of the first attacks struck Guglielmo Marconi’s demonstration of radio transmission in 1903, when he communicated from Cornwall to London, 300 miles away. Nevil Maskelyne, a music-hall magician and would-be wireless tycoon, who had been frustrated by the Italian inventor’s patents, managed to take control of the system and broadcast obscene messages to the Royal Institution’s scandalized audience.

Though hacking is as old as wireless itself, much has changed since Marconi’s time. Information networks now blanket our planet, collecting and transferring immense amounts of data in real time. They enable many familiar activities: instantaneous communications, social media, financial transactions, and logistics management. Most important, information is no longer sequestered in a virtual realm, but permeates the environment in which we live. The physical, biological, and digital worlds have begun to converge – giving rise to what scientists refer to as “cyber-physical systems.”

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