Tattletale Shoes

E-mail Melanie Martella

So, in August, Nike and Apple introduced some very swank shoes that use a small wireless sensor on the shoe to communicate the runner's performance with a receiver attached to his or her iPod. Today (a mere four months later) I learn that some bright sparks from the University of Washington have already figured out how to track the runner by sensing the wireless communication between shoe and iPod. Oops.

I Spy.
You can read a bit more about the researchers and what they actually achieved by reading this article at the New Scientist Web site. To sum up, by reverse engineering the wireless protocol used by the Nike+iPod running kit, the researchers could identify runners who had this kit from up to 20 m away and could then track a runner's location. In a benevolent world, where duckies and bunnies frolic and nothing bad ever happens, this is not a terrible thing. But we don't live in a particularly benevolent world.

Check the history of our species and you'll find that our track record for principled use of power is pretty awful. So far it's been more a case of if someone can eavesdrop or spy then someone will eavesdrop or spy. What they do with the information can range from benign (targeted ads and information) to scary (identify theft, other criminal acts, industrial espionage, or punishing dissenters). For a great list of espionage-related books, check out the Further Reading list at the end of the Wikipedia entry on Espionage.

New World, New Demands
The crack of the enhanced running shoes really just illustrates one point: if you build it, someone's going to figure out how it works, for good or ill. With the proliferation of wireless devices, we need to start thinking differently (or thinking at all) about the fact that we're happily beaming information around us. New passports currently have RFID chips in them. Here's an excellent explanation by Bruce Schneier of why RFID passports are a very bad idea. As the technology matures, this will get better, but right now? Bad idea. Demographers have been happily making use of aggregated data to help advertisers, companies, marketing departments, and many other groups understand populations. Here's a list of North American demography resources to give you an idea of some of the information they have access to.

If we don't want strangers using (or abusing) our information, then we need to be aware of the kinds of information we're scattering around. We're not used to considering how our information can be acquired without our consent. If you've considered the matter and decided that you don't care, that's fine. I just want more people to really think about it.

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