Last night the news broke that hackers managed to physically break into the offices of a Pricewaterhouse Cooper branch in Tennessee and download the unreleased tax records of Republican Presidential Candidate Mitts Romney. These hackers set up shop in an empty office, connected to the servers in-house, and downloaded the files. The hackers then encrypted those tax return files and distributed them to the media, unreadable to anyone without the key. This key to the file, and therefor the right to read it first, is being held for ransom and is to be auctioned off to the highest bidder in an untraceable currency called Bitcoin. While it is a digital item being unlocked, regular kidnappers and thieves of the near future could begin demanding Bitcoin as payment, eliminating the fear of being traced back to the crime from a financial paper trail.Bitcoin protocol is an extremely complicated distributed economic technology and I won’t go in to details here, but this is what it is at the core: Untraceable, untaxable digital money that is accepted the world over.
While Bitcoin has its legitimate uses, it has been embraced by end-of-the-world survivalists as a hedge against gold, and by criminals engaging in the online sale of drugs and illegal weapons. While these hackers may seem original, this isn’t the first use of seeding a file and holding the key as a weapon…
If you keep up with international news, you’ve probably heard of a man named Julian Assange. A few years ago Assange set up a website called Wikileaks, where anyone could upload confidential / classified documents. Bank Of America, The US Government, and many other institutions have had their most intimate secrets told to Assange through his website. Before anyone could catch on to what happened, Assange encrypted those files and distributed the encrypted files as a file type called “torrent” all over the world. Thousands and thousands of people all over the world have these secrets on their MacBooks and thumb drives, waiting for the day when Assange releases the key. Like a James Bond villan, Assange has given that digital key to trusted allies, to be released in the event of his death. A “Dead man’s switch” that is for all intents and purposes the worlds most solid life insurance policy.
Presumably this protects him from being assassinated and makes him one of the most dangerous and powerful people on the planet. Assange is currently holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, a man without a country, while the international political machine scrambles around him trying to decide how to clean up the mess without killing Assange and releasing the key to the files.
The interesting thing about technology is that it always moves forward, never backward, so society and the legal system must learn to move faster when it comes to assessing and preventing these new kinds of threats. Humans will always build more complex and original things, whether it is an iPhone 5 or a technologically elaborate extortion system, so we must be prepared to deal with that. After all, when is the last time you saw someone with a Walkman on the subway?
This article was written by Jesse Waites, technology activist and founder of PNTHR.com