Data Visibility & Protection Endpoint Security

The Accelerating Pace of Cyber Threats: A Historical Perspective

March 27, 2023

4 Min Read

We constantly hear in the news that cyber threats are accelerating, and that security teams are struggling to keep up with the rate of development. It’s both true, and not surprising. The entire history of humanity tells us this is pretty much bound to happen.

While cyberattacks are attacks on technology, the attack tools are also themselves pieces of technology. The rate of technology development has been accelerating for as long as technology has existed; there’s no reason why it should stop any time soon and there’s no reason why attack tools shouldn’t follow the same trend.

How we got here

To get an appreciation of how technological development has accelerated, it’s instructive to look at the timelines.

  • It took hominids two and a half million years to go from creating the first tools to being able to reliably light and control fire. 800,000 years later, humans invented beds; the bow and arrow were 140,000 years after that but then only about 17,000 more years we started to make musical instruments. 33,000 years after that, around 10,000BC, we invented farming, and then society really started to take off.
  • Writing took us another 4,000 years to develop, and soon after that we got the first wheel on an axle. Stone tools were replaced by bronze ones about 3,000 years after the wheel, but they were superseded by iron ones less than 2,000 years later. Paper came along within 1,000 years and again, things permanently changed.
  • Over the next thousand years we got the windmill, gunpowder and some innovative tools for blacksmithing and stonemasonry. The next 500 years gave us lenses, then eyeglasses, then the printing press. The microscope came along soon after. Then, less than 300 years after the printing press, in the mid 18th century, we got the steam engine, and we really started gaining some steam (so to speak).
  • The next 100 years gave us vaccines, the steam locomotive, photography and the telegraph, but by 1870 life expectancy was still less than 30 years for most of the world. The next 50 years gave us the telephone, electric light, the automobile, the airplane and synthetic fertilizer. 25 more years gave us television, antibiotics to save people and the nuclear bomb to kill them. Oh yes, and it also gave us the first computers, and then things really, really started to take off.
  • Only about 20 years after the first general purpose computers were sold, we put people on the moon. Smallpox was the first disease to get a vaccine, in 1796, and it was the first to be eradicated in 1980. Right around that time, the TCP/IP protocol was standardized, laying the foundations for the internet, and - not wanting to sound like a stuck record - but then things really, really, really started to take off.

Modern-day computing … and hacking

About a decade after internet protocols were drafted the first self-replicating internet worm was released. This was still a few years before the internet was something that most people had access to at all, let alone used, let alone relied on for nearly all the necessities of life.

The number of innovations that have happened since the internet became widespread is beyond counting. As anyone in the security space knows though, not all of those innovations have been good.

Yes, we’ve built space stations, learnt to edit genes, put supercomputers in the pockets of half the world’s population and developed mRNA vaccines. Unfortunately, we’ve also come to completely rely on tools that have only been in existence for 0.001% of the time that tools have been around. The same acceleration of development that has allowed us to advance so fast has also allowed the attacks on these systems to rapidly advance as well.

What’s next?

Here, today, in 2023, roughly 3.4 million years after our ancestors started making tools, there is a great deal of talk about a new class of tool, and one tool in particular: Artificial Intelligence, and specifically ChatGPT.

ChatGPT isn’t alive, and it’s not magic, although it comes close to being an example of what science fiction author, Arthur C. Clark meant when he wrote that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” In fact, it’s just another, even more powerful tool. Since the first stone hunting axe was used to club another hominid, tools have been used for both good and bad. ChatGPT will be no different; it will be able to do both good and evil, both better and faster than before. That’s just the way that technology goes.

So yes, the attackers are innovating faster than ever. It’s not going to let up. We have to live with it. But remember, innovation works for good as well. Machine learning and artificial intelligence can be, and are being, used to protect as well as attack. Bad people will try to use huge machine learning models like ChatGPT to develop new attacks, but good people will be using them to come up with new defenses. These tools may all be very new, but it’s important to remember that in some way, it’s just the same as it’s been for millions of years!

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