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Futurologist warns of malevolent dust menace

It'll get right up your nose

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As if botnet clients and infected USB devices weren't bad enough, security pros of the future may be faced with the menace of "smart dust" information stealing threats, if a futurologist is to be believed.

Ian Pearson reckons that so-called "smart dust" will be the stuff of future IT security nightmares. Smart dust is nothing to do with the Smoke Monster in Lost, nor the concept outline in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, though it might as well be given the vagueness of the description Pearson offers.

In a Life and How We’ll Live It Futurizon report, which was commissioned by IT giant Fujitsu, Pearson explains:

Tiny specks of smart dust dropped through ventilation grills on office equipment will allow interception of data before it even gets to an encryption device. Slightly ‘cleverer’ smart dust could even allow documents to be subtly altered while they are being printed.

Malware will continue to exist alongside the asthma-unfriendly dust menace, apparently. Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant at Sophos, said Pearson's projections on this score seemed designed to make headlines rather than delineate real threats and possible counter-measures.

"What are we supposed to do make microscopic barrage balloons?" Cluley asked. "He doesn't explain how this smart dust would work. It's not very useful."

Cluley added that the trend was towards much more and similar malware. "The inventiveness has gone out of malware creation," he said, almost wistfully.

We wanted to ask Pearson how smart dust might work but unfortunately he was unavailable on Thursday, the day Fujitsu issued an embargoed release on his musings, and continued to be unavailable for the next week.

Futurologists have the task of tracking and predicting new developments throughout IT, and evaluating the technological and social implications. At best they have the capability to inspire engineers (the doers) to develop new types of products in a way the best science fiction has sometimes contributed to technology in the past. For example, it was hard Sci-Fi giant Arthur C Clarke who first came up with idea of geostationary satellites.

Most of the projections by Pearson in the report actually make sense because they draw on current developments. For example, he predicts retinal projection of screens via active contact lenses (a la Minority Report) and Artificial Intelligence rather than people doing humdrum office tasks.

More boldly, Pearson predicts the reversal of globalisation in terms of staff location, except for some niche industries that require skills that are spread globally, because of the importance of maintaining face to face contact.

That argument cuts against the move to greater use of remote working and the ubiquity of cloud computing, which Pearson also predicts, but is at least plausible.

Smart dust, by contrast, is an ill-defined flight of fancy that's best swept under the carpet or hoovered up lest it become an unsightly distraction. ®

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

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