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Picture 123RF
Picture 123RF

The technology world was on fire after the artificial intelligence (AI) demonstration by OpenAI in the waning months of 2022. ChatGPT is truly a remarkable achievement, an AI you can have a conversation with and ask to do everything from writing essays to coding computer programs.

As a computer security expert I immediately did the first thing that came naturally to me: I tried to hack it. Could I get it to do something bad, something malicious? Could this be abused by criminals or spies to enable new types of cybercrime?

The answer, of course, is yes, like most tools. Someone with ill intent can abuse miraculous scientific achievements to do things that could likely cause harm. The surprising part though, is that the danger lies in the social arena, not the technical one.

While ChatGPT can be tricked into writing malicious computer code, that isn’t really all that scary. Computer code can be analysed by computer security products in milliseconds and deemed to be malicious or safe with a high degree of certainty. Technology can always counteract technology. The problems surface when what we are trying to detect isn’t computer code but rather words and meaning that will be interpreted by humans, not machines.

Two factors make this dangerous. First, until now it was not practical to have a computer create tempting lures that would tricked victims into interacting with them. The technology now is not only available but so easily accessible as to be cheap or even free. Second, the primary way users keep themselves safe today is by noticing mistakes made by attackers in their grammar and spelling, to detect that an email or communication may be from an intruder.

If we take away the last remaining sign that a malicious email or chat message was crafted carelessly by someone without a strong command of the language, how will we defend ourselves?

In my eyes, this signals the end of most computer users’ ability to discern real mail from fake. Today these tools work well only for English language text, but that is a simple training issue. The ability to write fluently in any language in the world (including computer programming languages) is now here. We must rethink our approaches to user education and implement technical measures to prevent these messages from ever making it to inboxes.

The good news is that computers are quite good at detecting and potentially blocking most of this content. Ultimately a spam campaign always has some sort of call to action — they may want you to phone them, reply, click a link or open an attachment. These are impossible to remove and can aid in detection. We can also train AI models to detect when text has been generated by ChatGPT and add a warning banner or perhaps block the message.

The problematic situations are when we fail to block them and they end up in someone’s inbox. It’s a reasonably small percentage, but not zero and therefore we must prepare a defence. Having defensive layers is essential, and with humans having reduced ability to spot a scam it is even more important that users are connecting through firewalls and web protection that can detect and block threats.

User training will need to shift away from the “watch for spelling mistakes” type of messaging and more into risk-based approaches to verification of who you’re talking to. Being asked to do something financially, with a password or with sensitive data? Pick up the phone and confirm before proceeding.

As machine intelligence continues to advance the work of separating fact from fiction will continue to become more difficult. We will need to be sure we build systems that are flexible enough to combat these messages, but also educate staff on the need to take additional steps when receiving sensitive requests via email.

Wisniewski is field CTO: applied research at Sophos. 

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