Imagine this: It’s the morning of Election Day, 2020. Americans across the country cast secure, encrypted votes from their smartphones and laptops, electronically choosing their president for the first time in history. Turnout reaches record highs. Live results online show that it’s a close race between the two leading candidates. But by early afternoon, an independent candidate—a sketchy figure with ties to multiple terrorist organizations and no public support whatsoever—mysteriously takes the lead. At 4 p.m., he officially wins the election. The American people rise up in protest: Clearly, hacking, bribery, or other nefarious activity has taken place. However, because the voting software is designed with end-to-end encryption to ensure anonymity, no audit or recount is possible. America’s next president is a terrorist. This is the hypothetical scenario that won Bruce Schneier’s annual online “movie-plot threat” contest by popular vote this past weekend.
Schneier—a world-renowned cryptographer and computer security specialist—hosts a yearly contest asking readers to submit imaginative stories about technology-driven terrorist threats—crashing satellites, attacking cars with viruses, and the like. The goal, he explains on the site, isn’t to point out present-day threats that deserve actual security attention from the government. It’s more to create over-the-top, intentionally scary scenarios that are almost amusing in their implausibility: the type of scenarios that would be perfect for dystopian tech-driven films. Think The Matrix, or the latest Avengers film.
This year, the theme was encryption—a timely topic, given that Schneier has come out against the idea of putting “back doors” into encryption, to permit law enforcement surveillance. The runners-up for the 2015 contest included a plot about an encrypted flash drive with exclusive information about deadly virus’s antidote and another one about an unstoppable, automated attack on the NSA.