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December 7, 2006

Your Shoes, If You Can Afford Them, Are Spying On You

So, your shoes may spy on you.  A report written as a college project by University of Washington doctoral candidate Scott Saponas details how the Nike+iPod Kit can help "bad people" track a user.  The sensor in the shoes broadcast a signal to a receiver attached to an iPod Nano that gives running data to the user.  The point of the report is that anyone can set up easily hidable receivers to track an individual.  No security encrypts or otherwise limits the transmission, which has a range of about 60 feet.  Saponas describes setting up just such a system for about $250 in parts.  The likeliest people to use such a system are estranged boyfriends (girlfriends, husbands, wives, etc.), stalkers, and maybe just crazy people.

Should this be a cause for concern?  Possibly, but for a majority of people probably not. This is not to minimize the potential threat.  There is always someone loony enough out there who would go this far and more.  But my reaction to this threat to privacy was "compared to what?"  Our cell phones track us.  Web sites track us.  Microsoft Zune players can tell when another one is near by.

Similar RFID chips are going into credit cards, driver's licenses, passports, corporate IDs, retail inventory, and a host of other applications.  Security experts complain that the government implementation in passports is not secure, but the government is going forward with issuing their electronic  documents anyway.  I'm surprised that music and movie producers haven't embedded them in discs for players to tell the difference between an original and a copy. 

Retailers love the idea of tracking inventory to make stock decisions simpler and less costly.  RFID chips can also act as security devices to prevent theft.  But privacy experts warn that these same chips can identify us and track our movements as we wear these clothes.  The problem and contradiction in all of this is the convenience these technologies bring compared to how they can be used against us.  Until someone actually does that malevolence in a significant way, I suspect that a majority of people will take the risk.

It was similar in the early days of the web when cookies became an issue.  Cookies offer the convenience of a personalized web experience, such as having those shopping carts at online stores being static, or preserving a set of preferences at a site.  Cookies also track our surfing habits.  There is no doubt about that.  Most people, however, don't erase them or clear their cache or other online trails because its inconvenient to do so and it hasn't come back to hurt them compared to the convenience they get from cookies.  Cookies are not going away and neither is RFID.  But the choice is there:  erase them, or leave them.  It won't matter anyway if a government proposal goes through that Internet providers keep records of our site visits and emails for two years.  We'll be tracked as mandated by law. 

The report does not go after Apple and Nike for using this technology.  It just points out the security issues as they currently exist.  It's up to the user to make a decision over the risk.  Buy a $10 pedometer if you are afraid someone is tracking your running route.  Of course, that isn't as cool as the Nike and Apple brand combined, but you'll be a tad safer but likely no more private than before.

The report is available here.  Stories are in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, ComputerWorld, and Live Science.

December 7, 2006 | Permalink

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