The dawning of the age of stealth computing

The march of Moore’s Law is bringing us to the point where computers will routinely be associated with ordinary things.

Consider the recent case of a Montréal man who was found guilty of dangerous driving on the basis of evidence stored in his airbag’s “”black box,”” or event data recorder. This

is a striking foretaste of what our world might be like when computers are everywhere.

The late Mark Weiser, who coined the phrase “”quiet computing”” to describe how computers will simply recede into the background, might rather have called it “”stealth computing;”” they’re in the background all right, but you don’t know what they’re doing.

The most common reaction to the story about the event data recorder is to worry about personal privacy, but the equally important issue it raises is how rapidly our technology is outpacing our (society’s) ability to manage it. The history of technology is, of course, the history of unintended consequences, but now the consequences appear much faster than ever before.

The original purpose of the event data recorder was to protect car manufacturers from specious lawsuits, but in just a few years it has become routinely used by police forces for accident reconstruction. The little box even records whether you’re wearing a seat belt or not, useful information for insurance companies. And most of us didn’t even know it was there.

As long as the physical and virtual worlds were well separated, there was less of a problem when unintended consequences of new technology were encountered. For example, e-mail is the largest single user of the Internet, and most of it is spam. Spam costs us all in terms of lost bandwidth and server resources, but so far it has been more of a nuisance than anything else. When computers and things are intimately related, and daily life is affected, the unintended consequences are considerably more problematic. These can arise from technology failure (e.g., electricity grid failure) or the unanticipated use of some new capability (e.g., the event data recorder).

The core technology that will allow for an Internet of things, namely the ability of things to communicate with one another in ad hoc networks, is immature and quite vulnerable. The deployment of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth is instructive. Both have exhibited intrinsic insecurity. The insecurities of Wi-Fi are well known; and there’s a growing sub-cult of hackers who delight in “”blue-jacking”” — exploiting the poor security of the Bluetooth protocol by detecting and delivering unexpected messages to Bluetooth-equipped mobile phones.

The essence of unanticipated use is that it cannot, indeed, be anticipated. We can, however, confidently say our ability to forecast the behaviour of a complex system diminishes drastically as the system becomes more complex, for example, in terms of number of nodes and connections. The more we insert devices into everyday objects that can record and communicate their identity, location and state, the more we expose ourselves to the kind of unexpected outcome the event data recorder example presents.

Postscript: The driver in question was traveling between 130 and 160 km/h in a residential neighbourhood when he struck another car, whose driver, 19-year-old Yacine Zinet, died at the scene.

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