Thursday, June 27, 2013

Be Wary, Be Very Wary

Trey Smith

Consumers like new innovations that make our lives more convenient. Remember the quaint old days when people made purchases with cash or checks? That's now been replaced by the ubiquitous debit card. Remember the days of yore when the only time you could answer the phone was when you were at work or home? Now your phone goes wherever you go. Yes, technology has made our lives more comfortable, but it has also made it easier for corporations and the government to track our movements, obtain a good deal of personal information and even manipulate the lives we lead.

Take, for example, the innovation of the bank (debit) card. When these cards first began coming out in the 70s, we were sold on their convenience. By carrying a bank card, they told us, we didn't have to walk around flush with cash or go through the hassle of trying to get stores or businesses we didn't typically frequent to accept our checks. What's more, using them was free! So, we were sold on their convenience and low cost.

Once the use of bank cards became nearly ubiquitous, the free part mostly went away. Today there are all sorts of fees and surcharges attached to them. In the long run, financial institutions are profiting more from the use of bank cards than they ever did when we stuck to cash and checks. But there is another insidious aspect to bank cards that was never advertised: All purchases made with these cards are now recorded and tracked!

Who can get their hands on this personal information? We don't precisely know! It is assumed that our bank has access. We know through various news reports that our banks often sell our information to others. But there is another institution that can now access those records too. The government! Government spies -- both federal employees and hundreds of thousands of contractors -- can see almost everything we purchase from a night of phone sex to a box of toothpicks.

And this should make us wonder: Was this the true intent behind the introduction of bank cards all along? Were we duped into thinking this was all about saving money and convenience instead of its true purpose of providing corporate and government access to our purchasing behavior?

Think about cell phones and other internet-connected electronic gadgets. Again, we were sold on their convenience and again we are now being tracked and our personal information is made available both to corporations and the government.

Cloud computing is now in vogue. Store your personal information in the cloud, they tell us, and you can access it everywhere you go. But so too can corporations and the government! In fact, for government spies, it is a lot easier to slurp up your private information from a cloud than it would be from other sources.

Another new innovation is vehicle telematics. One such system, OnStar, is offered by Chevrolet. In the event of an automobile accident, OnStar can determine your location and contact emergency personnel, if needed. If your vehicle begins to malfunction, the OnStar system can remotely ascertain the mechanical difficulty. If your vehicle is stolen, OnStar can assist the police in tracking it down. Pretty cool, huh?

But there is a downside as well. Because your vehicle is connected to the internet, corporations and the government can track your movements. They can conceivably listen in to your conversations inside your vehicle. Worst of all, according to Richard Clarke, vehicles equipped with such telemetrics can fall victim to hacking!
The peculiar circumstances of journalist Michael Hastings' death in Los Angeles last week have unleashed a wave of conspiracy theories.

Now there's another theory to contribute to the paranoia: According to a prominent security analyst, technology exists that could've allowed someone to hack his car. Former U.S. National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counter-terrorism Richard Clarke told The Huffington Post that what is known about the single-vehicle crash is "consistent with a car cyber attack."

Clarke said, "There is reason to believe that intelligence agencies for major powers" -- including the United States -- know how to remotely seize control of a car.

"What has been revealed as a result of some research at universities is that it's relatively easy to hack your way into the control system of a car, and to do such things as cause acceleration when the driver doesn't want acceleration, to throw on the brakes when the driver doesn't want the brakes on, to launch an air bag," Clarke told The Huffington Post. "You can do some really highly destructive things now, through hacking a car, and it's not that hard."

"So if there were a cyber attack on the car -- and I'm not saying there was," Clarke added, "I think whoever did it would probably get away with it."
In all honesty, when I heard about Hastings' death, this was my first thought! The circumstances of the accident simply didn't sound very plausible to me. Considering who Hastings was and the kind of in-your-face investigative reporting he did, my first thought was some kind of remote-control sabotage. Until someone definitively proves otherwise, I am sticking to my initial thought.

More generally, I am learning to be very wary of supposed consumer innovations. Over the past few decades, almost every one that has been sold as a benign method of making our lives more convenient has concurrently had a nefarious side to it. Whenever a new idea is advertised these days, the first question that pops into my mind is: What is the corporate or government angle? Is this truly about ease of use and convenience or something else altogether?

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