The tech cycle: Out with the old problems, in with the new

Smart refrigerators? PCs breathing viruses onto other PCs? Beware of new tech solutions in search of a problem

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There’s a moment in everyone’s existence, toward the tail end of midlife, where we look around in utter confusion. Many people mistake it for the first day of old age and mental decrepitude, but they’re wrong. It’s the first day of wisdom -- not deep, Buddha-like knowledge that might draw in hemp-dressed groupies who frolic around while you sit and eat organic grapes, but stark common sense forged in scotch and blood.

It’s that peculiar glint we see in the eyes of youth-challenged citizens as they look at us when we do something “now” and “happening.” We interpret the glint as befuddlement, but as it turns out, we’re the dummies. They know full well what’s going on, but they can't believe we're stupid enough to do whatever it is we’re doing. My dad gave me that look many times, like when he spied me rolling up the sleeves of my linen sport jacket in 1984 or caught me listening to Depeche Mode. Now I flashed the same peep when my little sister told me she wanted to buy a smart fridge.

Disappointed confusion overtook me, like when she showed me an artfully “distressed” desk she purchased for a bundle. She viewed it as the very latest in furniture fashion. I saw it as the wood-shop creation of a color-blind 15-year-old, who then left it in a wet garage for 20 years and subsequently got away with selling it in a boutique for two grand instead of a garage sale for 20 bucks. I’m confused, sis. Why would you do that?

Our research dollars at work

Which is exactly the question I’d like to ask the researchers at Ben-Gurion University. I’ve seen a bunch of questionable research from our grant-funded friends in academia recently -- like the zombie infection tracker from Cornell (don't you have anything better to do?). But the lug nuts at Ben-Gurion aren’t tracking zombies or doing scientific studies on the number of scientific studies. Instead, they went and figured out how to have one PC spy on another PC using nothing but heat waves.

If you're wearing the same confused, disgusted expression on your face that you had the first time you tasted Red Bull, you’re reacting appropriately. This crew figured out how to breach the last, best defense against getting hacked remotely: the air gap. The group has named its contribution to privacy erosion BitWhisper, and it’s supposed to establish a secret bidirectional breaching channel between two adjacent PCs using nothing but the heat being emitted from one machine in the direction of the other.

It’s not enough that my sister wants to buy a smart fridge, though I've told her she’s paying for features she  doesn’t need while signing up her appliances to be used in the same botnets that already infect her iPhone and MacBook. She’s one of millions of consumers aching to swap everything they own for Internet of things equivalents, artfully distressed and searching for connectivity like Tom Cruise searches for wives, so they can perform important futuristic operations like setting the microwave to text them when the popcorn’s done or Facebooking from the car’s dash or automatically calling 911 after they crash while Facebooking from the car’s dash.

You will never disconnect

Data breaches, email monitoring, massive botnets, encryption holes -- none of that matters. We’re speeding toward the Internet of things like Nancy Kerrigan to Jeff Gillooly. Symantec hasn’t released Norton Security: Kitchen Edition yet, but we don’t care. Forget about researching ways to protect anything -- that’s so yesterday! Obviously, the best use of today’s brainpower and grant money is to figure out how to circumvent disconnecting because there aren’t enough ways to spy on people digitally.

In the future, BitWhisper 2.0 will increase the range, compatible sensors will be added to new appliance lines by secret federal mandate, and you’ll be on the grid whether or not you’re wearing a tin foil hat. If someone wants to read your email, you can’t merely switch off your PC’s data pipe and avoid them. Instead, your smart fridge might heat up and connect to your smart convection oven, which is halfway to your smart coffee table upon which sits your iPad and that’s the ball game.

Ah, but what do I know? I’m an old fart who still likes unchipped furniture and refrigerators that don’t tweet.

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