In the dark ages of the web, before iPhones and iPads, when we were still wiping Tim Berners-Lee’s amniotic fluid from the internet, spam emails were pretty innocent.

In those days spam was the equivalent of the junk mail that gets stuffed through your door. It was untargeted, the subject matter addressed taboo topics with broad audiences — weightloss, virility, hair loss — and it was also pretty ineffective. Spammers of old worked on the assumption that very few would respond to their tales of Nigerian princes, Viagra adverts, and fake lottery wins, and so the more rubbish they sent out the higher the likelihood of some naive internet user falling for their scam.

But as the internet develops, and your personal information becomes more valuable — did you know that your personal data is worth £819.57 to a hacker? — these scams are becoming ever more sophisticated.

You might have heard of, or even received, an email like the one below. This is a common email scam aiming to blackmail the target into handing over money in the form of Bitcoin to the scammers.

I am aware one of your passphrase: password.

Lets get directly to point.

Not a single person has compensated me to investigate about you. You do not know me and you are probably wondering why you’re getting this e mail?actually, I actually installed a software on the adult vids (sex sites) site and you know what, you visited this web site to have fun (you know what I mean).

When you were viewing videos, your internet browser initiated working as a Remote control Desktop that has a key logger which provided me access to your display screen and also web cam. Right after that, my software program collected your complete contacts from your Messenger, FB, and email . After that I created a double-screen video. 1st part shows the video you were viewing (you’ve got a good taste haha . . .), and 2nd part shows the view of your webcam, and its u.

You do have only 2 alternatives. We are going to understand these types of choices in aspects:

1st solution is to disregard this message. In this case, I am going to send your actual video clip to just about all of your contacts and thus you can easily imagine about the disgrace you feel. Not to mention should you be in a relationship, just how it will eventually affect?

Number two choice will be to pay me $3000. We will think of it as a donation. As a consequence, I most certainly will without delay eliminate your videotape. You will keep going on your daily life like this never happened and you will not hear back again from me.

You’ll make the payment through Bitcoin (if you do not know this, search for “how to buy bitcoin” in Google).

These emails come in various forms, but in each case, the scammer claims to have obtained illicit images and contact details from the target’s computer or smartphone, and requests payment in order to prevent the scammer sending the images to the target’s Facebook contacts.

Despite the glaring grammatical and spelling errors, these emails can be extremely convincing. In some cases, they contain genuine personal details such as account passwords gathered from old dumps of trawled personal data. Not only that, but these emails often appear to have been sent from the target’s email account, use official company logos and signatures, and sometimes even the user’s real password.

Successful Phishing?

But while this type of phishing email may appear to the recipient to have been specifically targeted at them, the truth is that millions of these emails are sent out by bots every day; the scammer has probably never even seen the data for themselves. They simply combine known personal data in using bots to convince you that the is email specifically intended for you.

Many will just delete and ignore these emails, but they can be extremely convincing. When an increasing portion of your most personal and intimate life is stored online it’s no wonder that I’ve seen grown adults in tears after receiving one of these phishing emails.

Why are phishing emails so effective?

Arthur C Clarke’s often quoted phrase fits perfectly here, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” And the internet, despite its ubiquity, is for most, still powered by magic.

The internet is a black box into which people pour their lives: their photos and videos, their most private and intimate messages, their relationships, and finance details, and it’s not until something goes wrong that anyone even considers how the magic box works. And that’s a huge problem.

Recently these scams have become more sophisticated. Instead of individuals, scammers have begun targeting businesses and organisations, and are prepared to go to extreme lengths in order to gather personal information to convince people to hand out their valuable data.

Recently, there have been several cases where independent schools have had their student database breached by scammers. This data was then used to contact parents of students who had been unsuccessful in passing entrance exams and asked them to send money to a bank account within 24 hours in order to secure a place.

The scam emails that were sent looked genuine, contained personal information such as names and addresses that only the school could know and, of course, some of the parents took the bait and lost their money.

As hacking becomes more sophisticated, scams like the ones above will become increasingly difficult to spot. But it’s not just email, increasingly social media, direct messages, and even telephone calls are becoming dangerous attack vectors. Add a touch of artificial intelligence to these and the threat becomes even greater.

AI won’t just break industries, it will break society

Google Duplex is soon to be released augmentation to Google’s personal assistant product built into all Android phones and Google Home devices. Duplex is able to make telephone calls to real-world businesses and have a verbal conversation which is impossible to differentiate from a real person. It’s designed to call your local pizza shop and order a deep pan fully loaded pepperoni on your behalf, but could just as easily be used to call a thousand members of the public a minute to discuss your cadidate’s policies in an upcoming election. Alan Turing wants his prize money now.

It’s worth considering what else could a scammer do with this type of technology. Call every inhabitant of a major city and tell them that their house is on fire and they should get home immediately? Maybe they would provide their exact address and a description of their home. What chaos would that cause? Send a text message posing as an emergency alert that a missile is headed for your location?

If you can leverage the authority provided by personal data, and automate it’s spread using AI, you can imitate anyone.

But it’s not just text and audio, it’s also becoming easier to create video which appears completely genuine. Take a look at this fake video of Barack Obama. Okay, it’s not perfect, but if you saw this in your Facebook news feed, would you be able to accurately judge its veracity?

Fake news has only got started. In future, you will never be certain if a digital communication is legitimate. Ever. It’s a terrifying scenario, but one which becomes ever more likely as the hacking arms race intensifies and becomes emboldened by state sponsors. What better way to disrupt an entire nation than drown the population is a fog of misinformation. In the future the truth will become a needle in a haystack of nonsense.

The communications presented to you will be specific and personal, and they will be presented in any number of formats — emails, messages through social media, or even voice and video calls. They will leverage the authority of friends, family, your work, and government agencies and authorities. And the culprits will be unknown. They could live in any location on the Earth or, from a technical perspective, no location. They could be mandated by a foreign government, be part of organised crime, or an individual taking it upon his or herself. This isn’t science-fiction, this is the inevitable consequence of current technological trends.

AI will be the nuclear weapon of the 21st century. It will be a weapon of mass destruction that can be built in the basement of a house; one that can be shared without restriction of resources or financial cost; and it will have a devastating impact on the social cohesion of our societies.

But how bad could it be?

Our world is increasingly filtered through a digital prism, and in the near future it will become impossible to distinguish reality from fiction.

Recently history has shown us that reality can be warped for political purposes even without the advanced tools discussed above. Events such as the downing of MH17 in 2009, the health and legal status of Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election, and crimes apparently commited by Middle Eastern refugees migrating into Europe during 2015 were all clouded by Russian propaganda using social media and manipulating popular news outlets.

Many of these events still exist in the minds of many as a series of confused facts and clouded circumstances when in reality they are fully understood and documented. How much more effective could this type of active measures propoganda be if the tools discussed above were available to those intending to cloud the public’s discourse.

Imagine a world where within seconds your social media news feed could become flooded with a thousand videos of Donald Trump making a thousand different proclamations. Maybe a few of them is real, but who is to know? What if your political leader’s message is always tailored to you personally, and what happens when he or she is capable of saying whatever you want to hear?

It’s a very real future that may be impossible to defend against.

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