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In The Grim Darkness Of The Far Future, There Is Only Analogue

These days, our society seems to be growing increasingly fond of, even dependent on, wireless networks, to the point of obsession, if you ask me. It seems like almost everything these days at least has a Bluetooth option, or is even Bluetooth exclusive. In the far-future hard-sci-fi universe I am creating, however, this trend has long since been very much reversed, because the threat of hacking and other threats to wireless systems has become far too great to attach a wireless receiver to literally anything with any kind of power or sensitive contents. Even today, there are those of us who keep important files on external drives not connected to the internet, for fear of knowledgable bad actors, or even technology manufacturers, spying on our electronic records. I am not one of those people, but I do recognize the threats to our seemingly stable and safe cybernetic world that grow along with the processing power of computers.

Technologies: This is a far-future setting in which humanity is an interstellar civilization, far enough in the future that nothing about our own Modern World is relevant. Nonetheless, I am assuming that their computer and communication technologies are more or less like our own, or at least function by the same mechanisms, with the main difference being that they are far more powerful. What I mean by this is that physics doesn't change. Knowing this, though, between having advanced quantum computers and energy infrastructure approaching the level of Dyson Spheres, the computing power of this future civilization dwarfs our own to a degree that we can scarcely imagine. The difference in data storage and processing power is astronomical, to say the least. They also possess sophisticated robots and automation, and robots play a major part in war, especially swarms of small robots. People have access to cybernetic implants and other transhuman technologies that improve their abilities or grant new ones, and Sensory Overlay type technologies, such as entoptic display systems, also exist.

Now that you have some background, I hope you can draw some conclusions about the question at hand, which is how I can create world where cybersecurity does not exist. This question has two important parts:

  1. What technologies or paradigms would be needed to make all attempts to protect devices on a network from unauthorized access totally ineffectual? What could we expect computation and communication technology to look like in this world as a result?
  2. What makes a piece of technology remotely "hackable," and how much can having "Airspace" mitigate such threats?

First Part: Regardless of what falls within the capabilities of current or projected technology, I am interested in exploring an epoch with technologies vastly superior to our own, but nonetheless relegated to a kind of pre-internet condition, in which, to hack a computer, you have to actually physically go to it and attach cables to it. In this world, ships are able to communicate through space via traditional radio receiver-transmitters and that kind of thing, but only for messages they don't mind being overheard, and must actually attach cables to anything they want to exchange actual computer data or private messages with. This is an image I love, a huge bundle of wires snaking from a docking bay to a docked ship, loading or unloading data as though it were actual cargo. In this world, there is a whole lot of devices transmitting data, but none receiving, for fear of receiving a virus (or other harmful phenomenon like ambient spatial phenomenon or something extra-dimensional/paranormal) that will destroy it, possibly disabling life support systems, going on a murderous rampage if it is a robot, or causing unimaginable nightmarish agony if it is a neural implant. So, the first part of this question is of what technologies would be needed to make any and all attempts at protecting networked computer systems from infiltration and viruses and the like totally ineffectual. Probable technologies are preferred, but magical or poorly explained technologies, like those that seem to be depicted in Horizon: Zero Dawn, are also welcome here.

Second Part: I should mention that I once took a network security class, twice, and failed both times (I technically withdrew, but I regard this as a failure), and so my understanding of things like Network Interface Controllers, wireless transmitters and receivers, is not robust. I need to know what is hackable and what is not. For example, it seems to me that a simple radio receiver-transmitter, intended for verbal/audio communications over long distances, cannot be hacked per-se, because there is nothing about it to be hacked, no additional functionality or stored data. But would it have to be totally topologically separate from the rest of a ship or station's systems in order to protect them from cyberattacks? Would you be able to save radio communications to the ship's computer without risking the ship being sabotaged remotely? Or would you need airspace, that is, impassable breaks in a network to prevent unauthorized access, between all systems able to receive and everything else with any kind of computer in it? And hacking need not be exclusive to bands of radiation either. There could be technologies that communicate over short distances via magnetic fields or electrical pulses, such as a prosthetic limb communicating through a person's skin with the electrodes that connect to their nervous system (it is generally a bad idea to have implants that break the skin, as all such breaks in the dermis are always vulnerable to infection.) Would it be possible to remotely hack or in any way interfere with someone's prosthetic/transmuman implants? I should hope not, but I don't know enough to be sure. It seems unlikely, but would it be possible to hack a computer that is off by turning it on remotely by, say exiting those circuits that trigger the startup process? Basically, this part of the question is; what physically constitutes a receiver, and what physical structures are vulnerable to cyber-infiltration as a consequence of this? Remember that anything goes, but technologies that could be seen as plausible under known science are preferred. I know I put the Science-Based tag on this post, but this is only to reflect this, and if you want, you can focus more on the Science-Fiction tag. At least it's better for this purpose than the Hard-Science tag, which I initially put on; my fault for not reading as far into it as I should have.

Good day, and practice good cyber hygiene.

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    $\begingroup$ Not sure if you read this one en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Post-quantum_cryptography $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Aug 1 at 0:32
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    $\begingroup$ Literally cannot happen. Even if QC resistant encryption didn't exist, use of large en.wikipedia.org/wiki/One-time_pad encryption can be used to secure critical communications because there's nothing to break assuming that the OTP is generated properly. Storage is cheap and getting cheaper so an arbitrarily large OTP will be plausible in a sci-fi future. $\endgroup$ Aug 1 at 1:05
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    $\begingroup$ (a) I'm sure I've seen this question before. (b) VTC:NF. You get one question and that question is expected to be objective and answerable (see help center and help center). (c) That's a LOT of wall-of-text background. It's verbose. The first run-on sentence after "Technologies: can be rewritten to read, "My setting is a far future where humans no longer have any social or cultural attachment to Earth today." (d) Question #2 (not "2.", but the second question you actually ask...)... are you really asking us to prognosticate technology in a future with your Q's background? Really? $\endgroup$ Aug 1 at 2:20
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    $\begingroup$ Quantum computers reduce the time required to brite force a key by a power of two, but that is far from meanong that they can break any key in short time. If you reduced the bruteforcing time from a million years to a thousand years you are still going to have to wait more than a lifetime. $\endgroup$ Aug 1 at 3:47
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH I have removed the Hard-Science tag and replaced it with Science-Based, which should serve the purpose better, I hope. I didn't know that Science-Based existed initially. $\endgroup$ Aug 1 at 4:55
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This question assumes that computer systems are getting easier to hack over time. In reality, they are getting much harder, and will continue to get harder to hack as time goes on. As much as quantum computers are becoming more powerful, all those billions of dollars of RnD to be able to brute force your way through a 128-bit AES encryption key can be totally thrown in the trash just by swapping it out with a 256-bit encryption key... which most developers are already doing anyway in preparation for quantum computing.

What about all that RnD that go into making AIs that can simplify the number of guesses it has to take to crack a key? Well, just increasing the number of rounds of encryption or drop data you can stop smart hacking in its tracks. Even relatively weak cyphers can beat the best known methods of AI lead decryption with 72 rounds of encryption and 1024 drop characters preceding your actual data... but stronger cyphers are unbreakable at just 10 rounds with no drop characters.

That said, computers today can handle thousands of rounds of encryption with several kilobytes of drop data without any noticeable degradation in performance. In short, the more powerful computers become, it becomes exponentially easier to make strong encryption, and exponentially harder to make good methods of breaking it.

Developers have also gotten much better about using standardized frameworks that prevent exploitable code from being written without the programmer having to remember to make it secure. So, when a programmer 30 years ago created an input, he had to make sure it was protected against buffer overflows, unicode exploits, CSRF attacks, SQL injections, XXS injections, etc. Now when a programmer creates an input, he does so by calling a function that includes all of those protections built into it... and when new vulnerabilities are discovered, you can just patch the framework, and the security fix trickles down to all of the inputs that use that framework.

There is also pentation testing software out there now that can scan your software for common security issues before you publish it meaning that 99.9% of things that could be vulnerable with your code can now be caught before you go to market with it.

Anti-virus software is also becoming so advanced, that it can now use highly sophisticated AIs to look for heuristic patterns consistent with malicious activity allowing it to even block viruses that no one has even seen before.

So how come security breaches are still so common?

Nearly every hack that happens today comes from tricking a human operator into doing something that they should not do. You get them to put thier username and password into a fake website to collect thier login information. They use such a weak password that you can guess it before their Brute Force protection locks you out. You tell them they need to turn off thier anti-virus program to install this cracked version of whatever software. You send them a deep-fake Zoom call where the hacker looks and sounds like thier boss asking them to do something they shouldn't. Cybercrime is not on the rise because criminals are getting better at hacking, it is on the rise because they are getting better at scamming.

Remember first and foremost that no body is patching the humans that run the computers, and technology; so, instead of a future where hacking computers is almost guaranteed, you should assume that in the future, fooling human operators will be almost guaranteed. So to make things secure, instead of putting humans MORE in between the processes that computers are doing, your have to put them less in the way.

Services will no longer care about your username and password, but will care more about your computer's ability to provide a verifiable "hand-shake". Computers will no long trust humans to decide when a program is safe to install, your computer alone will decide that. Killer robots will no longer trust a human operator to confirm a target because the robot is better at distinguishing between a cameraman and an RPG wielding enemy solider.

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(This is not an answer, it's challenge of your assumptions. Take that as you will.)

I'm trying really hard to imagine a civilization that has Dyson Spheres and quantum computing, but also has no way to communicate data other than plugging bloody great bundles of data cables into their computers and only used analog radio for wireless communication. Really hard. I just can't fit that picture together. Even a transition to nano-mechanical compute clusters doesn't mean you can't use electromagnetic waves to transfer data. Even those analog radios can be repurposed with a tiny bit of effort to act as data carriers.

Likewise the idea that a civilization with that level of technology can't figure out a way to handle secure transmissions is, frankly, unbelievable. I'd be happy to be corrected, but as far as scientific reason for this are concerned, I think you're out of luck. You mentioned OTPs which, as far as we know, are functionally impossible to break. If you have a source of true randomness to generate your OTPs from, the only way to decode a message is to have a copy of the OTP that was used to create it. All the computational power in the universe isn't going to change that fact.

Worse, you don't even know that it's encrypted with a OTP. It could be some completely unknown encryption method with an unknown key length, rounds, chaining and so on. Even a known algorithm with an unknown key size is hard enough to figure out, changing the chaining algorithm or using an unknown number of rounds of the same encryption can make breaking the encryption infeasible. A few extra seconds worth of time on the encryption can raise the cracking time by several orders of magnitude.

Think of it this way: the combination of encryption algorithm, rounds, block chaining, key evolution, key size and so on, if known only to the participants in the conversation, are effectively a one-time pad themselves. If you don't know the encryption configuration then you're not going to be able to even start on a decryption.

So, the first part of this question is of what technologies would be needed to make any and all attempts at protecting networked computer systems from infiltration and viruses and the like totally ineffectual.

There ain't no such animal. Not in a scientific setting at least. To render all encryption and security worthless you'd have to be omniscient, or at least have access to an omniscient entity that will actually return your calls.

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Cryptography

There’s an upper limit in communication that helps this be plausible. At frequencies close to visible light (770 nanometers), transmission starts to become dangerous to life. Much higher than ultraviolet (400 nanometers) planetary atmospheres work hard to absorb or scatter your data because ultraviolet light (and higher frequencies of radiation) is dangerous to life. These frequencies put an upper limit of about 1 petabit of data per second, per channel. And you can get a lot of channels with different kinds of modulations and channel spacing. But for gross generalization, planetside wireless data maxes out at a few petabits per second.

If, in the very far future, computing power has advanced way beyond this, to a few exa, zetta, or yotta operations per second, then these ultra-powerful far future computers can reasonably crack any wireless communication simply because they have so much more computational strength than the maximum amount of complexity in any useful data stream. Someone could use increasingly sophisticated methods to hide the bits of data in the noise. However, I hope you’ll see that a point is reached where you can’t hide the few needles of actual signal in that fixed-sized haystack anymore.

Assuming no big innovation in planetary wireless signal technology, that’s the end of encrypted over-the-air communication planetside. You could still do a lot in space with plasma or very high frequencies, but there are also limits out there (and not terribly far removed from the planetary limits).

Enter cables. They could be made of all sorts of quantum or even more exotic conductors. Only cables are going to give you useful data rates for “modern” equipment, along with proper protection.

Hacking

There's a broad range of definitions for the term "hacking". In modern technical language, "hacking" is a person (even an authorized one) doing something that the system allows (even designed as a feature to enable) him to do, but that the owners of the system wish he or she had not done.

You could (and many people have) write books about that, so I'll leave it alone.

I think the kind of "hacking" being looked for in this answer is where someone accomplishes something with a computer system that it does not seem like it should be able to do : like websites reading your keystrokes and reporting back to their master. This is because any exposed feature of a system is usable, and undocumented features can be used by clever observers of a built-up design to do unexpected things. These are sometimes called "zero-day exploits", "exploits", or "viruses" when mostly self-propelled.

The Halting Problem comes up with maddening frequency in automatic software testing. It is a reformulation of Zeno's Paradox of Place, but can be summed up in the statement that we lack the right kind of mathematical language to completely express software (among other things) in terms of simple algorithms.

It is possible, maybe even probable that in the far future the Halting Problem has been solved. Perhaps, like Zeno's paradoxes of runners (limits), the solution will be shortly followed with some clever mathematics like Calculus was invented for limits, allowing individuals to decompose algorithms with paper and pen.

What is good for software testing is, unfortunately, also good for hackers. If math becomes available to thoroughly find the weaknesses of any described system, it also means that it is trivial to get a list of "zero day exploits" for that same system.

Therefore, your far future may live in a time where it's taken for granted that automatic systems are exposed to exploits (like viruses) to anyone willing to put in even a small amount of effort.

This is resulting in the culture redesigning how they think about automation in and out of it's intended environment.

Extra Credit : Human Crews of Warship

It probably goes without saying that any culture would be hesitant to trust the moral power to start war on their behalf to a machine. It goes even more so in a far future culture where even an idiot knows better than to trust a machine unsupervised for a long time.

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    $\begingroup$ "These ultra-powerful far future computers can reasonably crack any wireless communication simply because they have so much more computational strength than the maximum amount of complexity in any useful data stream": this is most definitely not how arithmetic works. The speed at which data comes in has no relationship whatsoever with how hard it is to decrypt it. Moreover, ordinary, commonly used encryption algorithms such as AES-256 are simply immune to any effort at decryption unless a mathematician makes an unexpected breakthrough in number theory; computing power is irrelevant. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Aug 2 at 11:49
  • $\begingroup$ I’ll have to research AES 256. According to Wikipedia, it can be cracked in 2^99 or about 10^30 seconds. Which would be almost real-time for a one million yotta hertz computer. I realize that kind of computational power is stupendous— however, I think it’s the frame presented in the question. $\endgroup$ Aug 2 at 14:33
  • $\begingroup$ Here’s the paper. It took 2^25 attempts. eprint.iacr.org/2009/317.pdf $\endgroup$ Aug 2 at 14:43
  • $\begingroup$ @JamesMcLellan That paper is somewhat deceptive. It only showed vulnerabilities in Low-round encryptions (7-14) and does not specify what block-cypher is being used. In general, the block cypher you use dictates your default rounds; so, Threefish for example is not that complex and has been cracked at up to 53 rounds of encryption, others cyphers have never been cracked at more than 8. So, when using the Threefish cypher it is common to default to 72 rounds, while other methods only default to 10-14. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Aug 2 at 15:31
  • $\begingroup$ Also, as computers become more powerful, it is becoming more common for excessively large numbers of rounds to be used. (since no one cares how inefficient decryption is as long as it is faster than the blink of an eye) So, many systems now encrypt AES a 1000-10000 rounds making such a boomerang attack utterly useless. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Aug 2 at 15:31
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I am recycling my answer from here: How would a treaty forbiding the use of automated weaponry change space combat?

It sticks in my mind as a pretty cool world for a fiction. As an answer it is a better answer for your question than for the original one!

This is an infection of AI and other computer systems. It is not clear how it is transmissible. Systems with no connection to other systems still can get infected; possibly the virus propagates through subspace. Back in the day this virus infected most or all of the AI combat systems and many other things besides. The virus does not just break things; it slaves the infected thing to an obscure mass mind, with obscure motives. Infected systems are unreliable, and instead of your goals infected systems may start pursing the goals of the virus.

The virus might be a weapon, or an evolved thing, or possibly a life form from somewhere else. Back in the day it took a systematic purge to get rid of this virus and result is a heavy reliance on biological systems, clockwork, vacuum tubes and other infection proof automations. The aforementioned ancient ships have their infected systems removed or if not removed, detached from control of the ships and just present, mute. Sometimes people talk with them. There are places and vessels which were abandoned by life, relinquished to the virus. It is not clear what goes on in such places now.

As regards the robot sentiences those that remain must have some intrinsic resistance to infection. Some adhere to a religion-like discipline that they think protects them. Robots used to be a lot quicker in the old days, or so people say. There are no new robots, and the ones still around are not quick at all; many are slower thinking than most biologics. Age? Infection? It is not known, but you don't want these robots anywhere that requires fast reflexes or quick thought.

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