Unintended consequences: It’s the law!

Technology introduces both benefits and dangers, but as new solution building blocks become available, we have to be aware of not only their benefits, but also limitations their designers haven’t considered.

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Other VoicesBy Jeffrey R. Harrow, Principal Technologist, The Harrow Group

IT'S A COMFORTABLE professional environment, designing new solutions with existing strategies and “building blocks.” We know the pitfalls and the work-arounds. For traditional projects, these techniques may well remain appropriate. But change is afoot.

New developments hold the potential for—indeed, will demand—new thinking. Increasingly, we’re going to see new types of sensors, controls and process elements, some at the molecular level—nanotech motors, enzymes and capillary-action chips are examples. And more Internet connectivity than ever.

New solution thinking, new tools—new building blocks—will be required for competitive advantage. So will new precautions.

Clothes, Cars and RFID
New technologies are joining old to create “systems” where individual stand-alone products once ruled. Whirlpool, Panasonic and Microsoft are embarked on a project to get washers and driers not only to sense the conditions of laundry loads—how heavy, how dirty, how wet—but also to alert users via email or cell phone when a load is nearing completion and ready to be moved to the dryer. If individual items are equipped with RFID chips, the washer will be able to sense automatically what fabric they are made of and what the appropriate water temperature is for best cleaning.

The most cutting-edge cars, such as my new Prius, have eliminated the key and all the nuisances surrounding it. Because the “key” is an RFID-equipped fob, it sends an encrypted signal to the car to unlock it, and all I have to do is walk up to the door and open it. The same “key” lets the car know that I’m positioned in the driver’s seat and lets me boot up all the car’s computers to start operation.

 “Boot-up??”  Yes, I don’t actually “start” the Prius; I just push a button that literally boots up the myriad computers that then do all the work.  In fact, the gasoline engine doesn’t necessarily start as I back out of a parking space (but that also introduces an “awareness” problem for pedestrians, who don’t get the normal cue of a noisy engine to look around). I never have to stick a key in the steering wheel column. Pretty cool stuff.

The Downside
But new technology creates new problems. Some testers of the new laundry system wonder if email notification of load status isn’t an unnecessary bell- and-whistle. More seriously, RIFD tags raise a whole myriad of concerns about privacy and security. Who else besides my washing machine can read the condition of my clothes from the tags? Do I care if they can? If the tags are sending information about my car into the electronic ether, who besides the car’s computer is reading it, and what will they do with the information? In the past, short of physically plugging a diagnostic computer into the car, it was deaf, dumb, and blind to the surrounding world. But with the addition of “communicative systems” the car is now reaching out and touching.

Depending on the care with which car communication systems are designed, they may open a path into the car for viruses or malware. Researchers at Amsterdam Free University say infected RFID tags can send viruses to back-end databases and spread it to other RFID tags. Not a pretty thought.

This is not to say that RFID systems have to be dangerous, but like Wi-Fi before them, initial RFID implementations don’t include strong security schemes that expect malicious attacks. They should.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Every new technology introduces both benefits and dangers. As new solution building blocks become available, we have to be aware of not only their benefits, but also limitations and dangers their designers haven’t considered.

After all, although the scenario seems improbable, I’d hate to see the chip in a maliciously altered ID card change the way your next automation system operates...


  Abuot the Author
Jeff HarrowJeffrey R. Harrow is principal technologist at The Harrow Group, www.TheHarrowGroup.com. He can be reached at Jeff@TheHarrowGroup.com.
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