Hoverboards and Wearables: What Back to the Future Day Says About Security

This week marked “Back to the Future Day”—i.e., October 21 2015, which is the day Marty McFly visits the future in the 1989 second film in the classic trilogy. As with all visions of the future, it’s worth taking a look to see which of the predictions of what life would be like eventually come true—and which don’t.

Let’s see…biometric door locks? Check. Virtual reality glasses? Yup. Huge-screen televisions, hands-free gaming and news drones? Check, check and check.

Dubious fashion choices involving plastic hats? Kind of. What about ubiquitous fax machines for all modern communications, flying cars and, crucially, hoverboards? Notsomuch.

What’s interesting when looking at Back to the Future II’s vision of society 30 years in the future is what it says about the evolution of security.  

“The future [we] have arrived in doesn’t possess all the cool tech like fusion reactors, holographic projection and more importantly real hoverboards,” said Martyn Ruks, technical director of MWR InfoSecurity. “However, in the place of this missing tech [we] find the Internet, smartphones, tablets and other cool gadgets.”

Yet, even if the imagined gadgetry in the film differs from today’s reality only in terms of being able to defy gravity, the pervasiveness and importance of cybersecurity simply wasn’t in the consciousness of filmmakers and the general public just under 30 years ago.

“The way Biff pays for his taxi cab ride has some inherent security flaws, so there would be major issues for companies to adopt such a payment system,” said Ryan O'Leary, senior director of the Threat Research Centre at WhiteHat Security, in an email. “Anyone who has used biometric readers on their tablet or phone know they’re inherently fussy, but even if you can get the technology right all you're requiring is someone’s fingerprints. Unfortunately, it’s more than simple to fool these fingerprint scanners.”

In many ways, the film was quite astute about where technology would head.

"If Marty’s watch-covered wrists are anything to go by, director Robert Zemeckis hinted that wearable tech would be the latest thing in 2015,” said Michael Hack, senior vice president of EMEA operations at Ipswitch. “We aren’t quite there yet, but in our recent survey we conducted… revealed that over 51% of businesses have employees wearing technology to the office, although I doubt employees will be sporting self-drying jackets any time soon.”

As such, it can also be seen as a cautionary tale for security—as in, be prepared for anything, even things that may not yet exist.

“The capabilities of the authorities portrayed in the film clearly aren’t perfect,” Ruks said. “For one thing, they weren’t able to detect the temporal displacement associated with the DeLorean whizzing back and forth in time. But maybe we should be congratulating Doc for his apparently flawless OpSec (well except for the Plutonium theft) by keeping his invention so secret and not allowing anyone to realize what he was doing. After all you don’t need to be able to detect something that doesn’t exist… or do you?”

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