The Internet of Abandoned Security

Labels containing RFID tags

Labels containing RFID tags, flickr CC image by Security4all

(This – indeed any – post is long overdue.)

People are talking about the Internet of Things. What they mean is that many everyday items will either become directly connected to the internet, or, at least, that the internet will become aware of them.

This sounds all-well-and-good, until you think of your jeans being tracked through shops, transport networks and all kinds of other places. Privacy no more!

The idea is not at all far fetched. See today’s BBC article Should you worry when your jeans go smart? RFID chips are already being inserted into clothes. These passive devices can be scanned as you pass sensors that actively broadcast a radio signal, which the RFID chip ‘reflects’ back with an embedded code identifying itself.

So, if the government of [insert name of paranoid nation-state here] wants to know where you are at all times, all it needs is the code of your jeans and a large network of sensors. There’s an easy solution to this (inspired by the climatic scene from the remake of The Thomas Crown Affair): every time you see someone wearing your size of jeans, just swap. Yep, the mind boggles.

The privacy furore around Facebook and Google’s debacle with its Wi-Fi ‘snooping’ could pale into insignificance in comparison. The BBC article rightly points out that we are being tracked daily by our mobile phones and credit card transactions, so we are much further down the road than many realise.

But what do our students know of all this? How many turn off location on their phones so that pictures they post are not geotagged on Facebook? How many have the slightest clue how the privacy system even works on Facebook? (I get lost in the myriad of options – and much of the time I have no idea what information apps may be accessing on my Android phone. I was rather surprised when WhatsApp told me who else I knew that was using their service.)

And do they forget, that once the information (such as ‘inappropriate’ photos) is out there, it’s almost impossible to get it back? Their whole life since age ten may already be irretrievably posted online.

There may, however, be an upside to all this. People have been auto-tweeting birds pecking on a ‘keyboard’ – hey, for all I know, someone is already tweeting the movements of Joe the Limpet – but, any savvy amateur can turn some of this tech-stuff into weird and wonderful contraptions. A BBC Magazine article, Viewpoint: The internet of things and yet another revolution, reflects broadly on the ‘Maker‘ culture and how expressing yourself using off-the-shelf technology can enhance your experience of the world.

Opportunity or threat?

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