The Law of Unintended Consequences
Kirt's Cogitations™ #240

RF Cafe University"Factoids," "Kirt's Cogitations," and "Tech Topics Smorgasbord" are all manifestations of my ranting on various subjects relevant (usually) to the overall RF Cafe theme. All may be accessed on these pages:

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The Law of Unintended Consequences

“Give him enough rope and he'll hang himself.” That is a line often directed toward someone who is engaging in nefarious activities without realizing he is being monitored and abetted in seeing to it that he orchestrates his own downfall. Sometimes, though, well-meaning folks unwittingly are accomplices to their own adversity. If you are an engineer, technician, manager, or salesman who has participated in the development and/or deployment of wireless technology, you may have already set the stage for your personal waterloo.

You know you are being watched, right? Constantly, right? Cameras in bank lobbies and clothing stores have been around seemingly forever to record archival data in case it is needed later in the pursuit and/or prosecution of a perp. Technology evolution then gave us more ubiquitous wireless video surveillance that performs 24/7 sentry duty in the Wal-Mart parking lot, on schoolyard playgrounds, at busy road intersections, and in high crime areas of urban neighborhoods. We hardly noticed its evolution, mainly because viewing of the records was limited largely to those responsible for security.

Then, along came the Internet and all restraints for invasion of privacy were removed. Take a walk along the beach, stroll downtown on the sidewalk past the bakery or pizzeria, cruise an interstate highway through a metropolitan area, withdraw money from an ATM, or even go to the zoo, and there is a good chance that somebody will (or at least could) see you in real time while sitting in front of a computer. More than a few people have been unpleasantly surprised to find videos or still shots of themselves turn up on websites like YouTube. There is nowhere to hide, it seems, if you are to go about your life in a “normal” manner. There could easily be dozens or hundreds of images recorded of you in your travels - anywhere in the world. Far from being merely the contrived imagination of a helpless paranoid, this is a very real phenomenon.

It gets worse. RFID and other wireless reporting systems now make not only seeing you, but tracking your movements and habits even simpler. I have linked to many headlines over the years that tell the story of criminals being tracked down and apprehended through the assimilation of data from recording and tracking devices spread over sometimes very wide regions. With relatively little effort, law enforcement can subpoena camera and electronic recordings from any and all sources that lie within an area of interest. Agents can utilize the cellular telephone networks and lately WiFi nets to track your path from point to point if you are using those services while on the move. That GPS receiver in your phone or laptop is especially appreciated because it provides much greater precision than does triangulation off of multiple cell towers or access points (there is more to the mandate for E911 than just finding you if you've fallen and you can't get up). Keep in mind that your cell phone is in nearly constant communication with the network even when you are not talking with someone - it just needs to be turned on. Zipping through the E-ZPass toll booths provides not only a simple digital record of your having been there, but a snapshot of you as well just in case it is needed later - remember to smile on the way through.

You are not a criminal, though, so you have nothing to worry about. Don't be so sure. The OnStar system in GM vehicles has provided unwelcome evidence in more than one civil court action. Wives have hired lawyers who have obtained subpoenas to obtain information on the whereabouts of their cheating husbands at clubs, motels, or other places they should not have been. Husbands have taken the same action against their wives. Guess what? Your cell phone can provide a lot of the same information - dates, times, and locations (at least from which cell area). The standard computer in your car is constantly filling a buffer with information about your driving speed, acceleration, and braking. Police accident investigators routinely do a data dump at the scene for information that can and will be used in court against you (or in your favor if you are lucky). Credit card swipes, which all feed back into a central collection database, are prime targets for use in mounting a prosecution against you.

Are you worried yet? Have you done something that now you are a little concerned that somebody, somewhere has recorded it, but at least so far has no reason to use it against you? Have you been to any "questionable" websites lately, or maybe on a regular basis? Do you use an online alias under the erroneous assumption that no one really knows who you are? Don't count on it. Do you post anonymously on forums and blogs, or do a little bit of online gambling, all the while being confident that it is just your little secret? Unless you are a true black hat operator, you are not fooling anyone. Your tracks are sitting on your computer, in worldwide web routers, in your employer's nightly tape backup, maybe on your flash drive, and any number of other places. Maybe it's time to do a total system restore with a hard drive format, but even that can be "undone" if investigators know what they are searching for. Maybe you should just buy a new computer and trash the old one; that way all traces are gone - like melting down the murder weapon.

Now we have people volunteering to have RFID chips implanted, similar to the ones the animal shelter injects into adopted cats and dogs. In February of this year (2008), a New Jersey policeman became the first reported case of a person being saved due to having an RFID tag implant with his medical history in it. Given enough time, maybe through force as a part being eligible for treatment under the seemingly inevitable socialized health care system that is coming to America (and already implemented in most other countries), we might all be sporting an RFID chip. Operational ranges for the devices are increasing all the time so that a near field scan will no longer be necessary. That means setting up monitoring points as an integral part of store checkout lines, taxi cab meters, bus and train portals, vending machines, parking meters, and bathrooms, not to mention the other locations previously mentioned. The difference is that now you can personally be associated with buying those cigarettes even though you use cash, or maybe it will be a couple Snickers bars when you are a diagnosed diabetic. Wait until your government-assigned physician learns about that! Undergoing therapy for a gambling addiction and trying to buy a lottery ticket or a deck of cards? You're busted! Trying to buy more gasoline than your personal carbon footprint quota allows for? You're busted!

Who can you blame for what exists now and what is being developed for the future? Why, maybe that trite old saying about three fingers pointing back at yourself when pointing the index finger at someone else really does have some merit. After all, as I stated in the beginning, if you have in any way helped to develop or deploy the technology, you have essentially given up your right to abstain from self-incrimination in  a court of law. Nice going.

That Cell Phone In Your Hand Is A Tracking Device

Chips: High-Tech Aids or Tools for Big Brother?

Lawyers Using E-ZPass to Expose Adulterous Spouses

New Jersey Motorcycle Officer Loses Leg Following Crash

Posted March 6, 2008