Intelligence Strikes Back

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If intelligence is so great, why is it that the smarter our gizmos get, the more vulnerable we become? Paris Hilton loaded her T-Mobile smart phone with the names and numbers of her famous friends. What happened? Someone hacked into T-Mobile's systems, downloaded her phone book, and posted the entries on the Web. Needless to say, Hilton and her friends were rather upset, although I don't entirely understand why. I'd be angry too, but I'm not a celebrity. I find it ironic that these people spend small fortunes on publicists who try to help them reach the masses, but then they get angry when the masses reach them.

The celebrities who changed their telephone numbers to avoid being pestered probably disagree, but I think that when it comes to invasions of privacy, the disclosure of Hilton's phone list pales in comparison to the distribution of her "private" sex video over the Internet. (Klebanoff's Rule #1 for protecting privacy in the digital age: If there is something that you don't want the rest of the world to see, don't allow anyone, no matter how much you may trust them at this particular moment, to record it on a digital medium or on a medium that can be easily digitized.)

One technology that is making some phones smarter is Bluetooth, which allows gadgets to connect wirelessly to other nearby Bluetooth-enabled gizmos. That sounds like a good idea, right? Well, maybe, but whenever you drill a hole into one of your gadgets, you have to worry about what slime is going to crawl in unbidden and unannounced.

There's a virus out there that, once it's resident on a Bluetooth-enabled phone, looks for other Bluetooth-enabled phones that come within its range. When it finds one, the virus loads itself onto the other phone. You don't have to make a call. You don't have to send or receive text messages. You don't have to browse Web pages. The virus just spreads without any outside help, like a...well, like a virus.

Allowing devices to talk to each other can provide tremendous benefits, but it also invites malicious behavior. To prevent grievous harm, I think that we're going to have to impose some censorship on what they are allowed to say. Then again, if the truth be told, it's not so much the fact that devices are starting to communicate freely with each other that bothers me. What really depresses me is that most of them are much better conversationalists than I am.

Our smartest technologies aren't the only ones causing problems. Relatively brainless appliances can unintentionally hamper some of their smarter cousins. I read a news item about a malfunctioning television that was emitting energy, which is not surprising since all electrical appliances give off some energy. It's just that it accidentally emitted energy on a frequency reserved for international distress signals. Langley Air Force Base picked up the signal and dispatched local officials. Needless to say, this did not make the television owner particularly popular with said officials. He was told to turn off his set or risk a fine of $10,000. You never expect your trusty television to turn against you, but if you're addicted to TV, that's certainly an incentive to cut down.

It's not just televisions. All electrical appliances spew energy. There's been at least one case of a lowly pizza oven inadvertently emitting a signal on the search and rescue frequency. I've been in a couple of restaurants where it would have been a good idea to keep an ambulance on standby, but that's not the best way to do it.

The future will likely be much worse. Think about all of the computing power that is already in your car. I bought my first car about 30 years ago. Any half-decent mechanic with a good set of socket wrenches could fix just about anything that went wrong with it. Actually, my first car was so small that, when something went wrong, I could, through some bizarre incongruity in the laws of physics, put it in my back pocket and take it into the shop, but that's another story. Now, even the best mechanic in the world can't figure out what, if anything, is wrong with my current car unless he or she connects an external computer to my car's computer and allows the two to talk to each other.

I hardly ever drive so I was surprised when, long before reaching the first recommended service mileage, my car's computer displayed "Time for Service" even though nothing seemed to be wrong. My dealer explained that the computer takes into account not just mileage, but the elapsed time since the last service, driving speeds, the number of axle rotations, the number of times the brakes have been applied, and a whole host of other factors. He didn't say so, but I suspect that there is also a radio link to my dealer so that my car can flash the "Time for Service" message whenever the service department is running behind its revenue target.

My concern is that GM can already remotely connect to my car through its OnStar service. OnStar offers a number of benefits, but what happens if some hacker uses it to take control of my car? According to a recent New York Times article, that's not yet plausible, but it likely will be in the future as our cars become increasingly electronically controlled. The future will also see more connections between the onboard computer and the outside world so that carmakers and dealers will be able to provide remote monitoring and service. That sounds like a great idea, but some expert, yet evil hackers will undoubtedly find ways to use those links for malevolent purposes. When cars become able to drive themselves automatically, someone who doesn't realize that no one in the universe would be willing to pay a ransom of more than a few cents for me (and then only if I promise to reimburse them at a usury rate of interest) might remotely kidnap me by ordering my car to lock its doors and take me to some dark, isolated, miserable place like the suburbs.

It gets even more personal than your car. High-tech gurus tell us that, in the future, we will all sport wearable technologies. There will then be computer chips, displays, RFID tags, communication technologies, and other devices woven right into our clothing to do who knows what. That would be grand except for one vision that I can't get out of my head. I have this nagging feeling that once my clothes become computerized and interactive, some hacker will electronically hijack my underwear and infect it with a virus that will cause me no end of discomfort. Now that I've painted that mental image for you, you'll probably be cringing (or, depending on your state of mind and the picture in your head, maybe smiling) for the rest of the day.

Joel Klebanoff is a consultant, a writer, and president of Klebanoff Associates, Inc., a Toronto, Canada-based marketing communications firm. Joel has 25 years experience working in IT, first as a programmer/analyst and then as a marketer. He holds a Bachelor of Science in computer science and an MBA, both from the University of Toronto. Contact Joel at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. He would prefer that his gadgets never become smarter than he is, although he fears that they may have already surpassed that milestone.