Communion Of Dreams

“Strange how paranoia can link up with reality now and then.”*

When you see news like this in the mainstream press…

Rogue Cell Towers Could Be Intercepting Your Call

It seems rather far fetched at first glance. There is news that came out last week that rogue cell phone towers around the US are forcing mobile devices to disable their encryption making it possible that someone might be able to listen in to your call. “That could never happen to me,” you think out loud. But, apparently it could.

In 2010 at the DEF CON in Las Vegas, security researcher Chris Paget did the unthinkable. He built a cell tower of his own so that he could spoof legitimate towers and intercept calls.The device would mimic the type used by law enforcement agencies to intercept phone calls. In this case, he was able to build it for roughly $1500 US. Paget’s device would only capture 2G GSM phone calls. Carriers such as AT&TT -0.06% and T-Mobile would be vulnerable as they use GSM, unlike Verizon which relies on CDMA technology.

… it’s easy to feel a little paranoid. But is this a real threat? Has anyone actually seen things like this ‘in the wild’?


Rogue ‘Cell Towers’ Can Intercept Your Data; At Least One Found In Chicago

So-called rogue cell phone towers, the type that can intercept your mobile calls and data, are cropping up all over the United States, including here in Chicago, according to a company that specializes in developing highly secure mobile phones.

* * *

CBS 2 security analyst Ross Rice, a former FBI agent, said it’s likely being used illegally.

“I doubt that they are installed by law enforcement as they require a warrant to intercept conversations or data and since the cell providers are ordered by the court to cooperate with the intercept, there really would be no need for this,” Rice said.

“Most likely, they are installed and operated by hackers, trying to steal personal identification and passwords.”

Great. Just great.

Well, what can you do? There are some smart phones out there which are designed to thwart this kind of security threat. And I’ve mentioned another option previously. And now there’s a company with a whole line of clothing based on similar RF-blocking technology:

Kickstarting a line of Orwell-inspired clothes with radio-shielding pockets

“The 1984 Collection” is a line of clothing for men and women with removable, snap-in pockets that act as radio-shields for slipping your devices and tokens (cards, phones, etc) into to stop them from being read when you’re not using them.

Hmm … let’s see, there’s a passage from Chapter One of St Cybi’s Well that comes to mind:

Darnell stepped close to her, said in a low voice, “Give me your hand-held.”

She looked at him, raised an eyebrow. “Why?”

“I don’t want to make it too easy for anyone to listen in.”

“Really, Dar, or is this some kind of joke?”


She looked him in the eye, pulled her phone out of her small purse, held it out to him. “Here.”

“Either turn it off or put it into offline mode.”

She fiddled with it a moment then handed it over. He took it and dropped it into the RF-blocking pocket in his satchel. “Thanks.”

“Couldn’t I just have turned it off?”

“Nope. They can still turn it on remotely and activate the mic. This pocket,” he patted the satchel where he had put the phone, “blocks the signal. It isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty good protection.”

I guess I need to get back into the habit of using my RF-shielding pocket.


Jim Downey

*Philip K. Dick, of course.

Broadcast power.

Very interesting technology breakthrough: the use of metamaterials to harvest microwave energy and convert it to DC (direct current), with an efficiency on par with the best solar panels.  From EurekAlert:

With additional modifications, the researchers said the power-harvesting metamaterial could potentially be built into a cell phone, allowing the phone to recharge wirelessly while not in use. This feature could, in principle, allow people living in locations without ready access to a conventional power outlet to harvest energy from a nearby cell phone tower instead.

“Our work demonstrates a simple and inexpensive approach to electromagnetic power harvesting,” said Cummer. “The beauty of the design is that the basic building blocks are self-contained and additive. One can simply assemble more blocks to increase the scavenged power.”

For example, a series of power-harvesting blocks could be assembled to capture the signal from a known set of satellites passing overhead, the researchers explained. The small amount of energy generated from these signals might power a sensor network in a remote location such as a mountaintop or desert, allowing data collection for a long-term study that takes infrequent measurements.

This is a fundamental breakthrough, and one which will have a lot of applications/implications far beyond just those mentioned above. Consider what you could do with even our current electronics technology if you didn’t need to have access to charge batteries/capacitors. Already many devices are charged through induction, though that has a relatively short-range effect, and the magnetic fields used create their own problems (and are relatively inefficient).

Combine this with RFID technology as well as nano-sized processors/memory, and you quickly get to the point where ubiquitous computing becomes not just possible but economically viable. Fascinating.

The full pdf (just 4 pages) of the Applied Physics Letters article can be found here.

Jim Downey

Like an invisibility cloak.

So, as I am constantly blathering about, I’m spending a lot of time thinking through various aspects of St. Cybi’s Well. Things like characters, plotting, fitting in the storyline with what is already established in Communion of Dreams (while still making sure that the book can stand on its own, without someone having read Communion).  Well, one of those things concerns an instance where someone wants to not be readily located. Which is a little harder in today’s world than most people realize, given two things: general surveillance, and the homing-device you’re probably carrying in your pocket.

Yeah, I’m talking about your cell phone/mobile device/tablet. Anything which can connect to a cell network or GPS is probably also capable of being used to track you. And chances are, it will do so even if it is ostensibly “turned off.” About the only good way to be certain to stop this use is to pull the battery out of the thing.

And that’s a PITA, if you want to be able to actually use it without a delay and hassle of installing the battery then booting the thing up.

So the other day I sent a note to a good buddy of mine who has a lot more physics/technical knowledge than I do:

Second, a thought I had: since privacy is a concern, and your cell phone is a tracking device even when ‘off’ (but it’s a hassle to have to pull out the battery and then reboot the damned thing if you need it), why not go with a simple solution to isolate it? To wit: turn the phone off (or put it into ‘airplane mode’), drop it into a small Faraday cage. Just a simple bag or wallet with the right construction would do it. I know there are such things for use with passports/credit cards (I use a wallet for such when traveling overseas), so why not just extend the design a bit to accommodate a phone/tablet?

I got back a response which indicated that it should work, though you may need to tweak the construction specifics to be sure to block out the proper wavelengths most effectively.

And today, just for grins, I went to look for something like this. Guess what I found, which is just now available (actually, it won’t ship for a couple weeks):

Off the Grid Bag
Go Completely Off the Grid

This cleverly designed, superslim pouch for your wallet and phone blocks transmissions, as well as cell-tower and GPS tracking, and protects personal information from RFID readers. Ripstop nylon. Imported.

Bingo. Like an invisibility cloak for your phone.

Jim Downey

RFID chips = Tumors?
September 11, 2007, 11:24 am
Filed under: Government, Health, movies, Predictions, RFID, Science, Science Fiction, Society, tech, Wired, Writing stuff

[This post contains spoilers about the plot of Communion of Dreams. I’ll attempt to minimize how much I reveal in the course of discussing this topic, but you’ve been warned.]

RFID tagging is a popular plot device in a lot of movies and fiction, as well as a functional tool for commerce and security. But a lot of people have concerns about how suitable this tech is for the way it is being applied. Let’s put it this way: if you don’t already have a RFID-blocking wallet for your passport (and soon your credit cards), plan on getting one. The authorities claim that RFID passports and other devices are secure, since they can only be ‘read’ by machines at close encounter (just a couple of inches), but hackers have already established that such devices can be read at up to 10 yards.

Anyway, RFID tags are also popular for pet owners, who will ‘chip’ a pet with ID info in case it is lost. Likewise, the tech has been used for monitoring seniors who live alone and for anti-kidnapping devices.

But it seems that there may be medical concerns about implanting the chips into tissue. Concerns which were ignored by FDA. From an AP article the other day:

When the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved implanting microchips in humans, the manufacturer said it would save lives, letting doctors scan the tiny transponders to access patients’ medical records almost instantly. The FDA found “reasonable assurance” the device was safe, and a sub-agency even called it one of 2005’s top “innovative technologies.”

But neither the company nor the regulators publicly mentioned this: A series of veterinary and toxicology studies, dating to the mid-1990s, stated that chip implants had “induced” malignant tumors in some lab mice and rats.

“The transponders were the cause of the tumors,” said Keith Johnson, a retired toxicologic pathologist, explaining in a phone interview the findings of a 1996 study he led at the Dow Chemical Co. in Midland, Mich.

What’s even better is that it seems as though the man who was the head of the agency which made the decision then went to work for one of the major corporations pushing the technology:

The FDA is overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services, which, at the time of VeriChip’s approval, was headed by Tommy Thompson. Two weeks after the device’s approval took effect on Jan. 10, 2005, Thompson left his Cabinet post, and within five months was a board member of VeriChip Corp. and Applied Digital Solutions. He was compensated in cash and stock options.

Compensated to the tune of options on a quarter-million shares of stock and some $80,000, according to Threat Level.

Pretty sweet, eh?

Anyway, this whole notion of integrating tech into our actual bodies is a mainstay of SF, and I do a lot with it in Communion, because I see it as likely that this is where we’re headed. That doesn’t mean that it is a good idea, though, as the example of the RFID chips being suspect shows.

And here’s where we get into the Spoilers:

For Communion, I suggest that there are two options for the human race: to continue down a path of integration with our technology, becoming increasingly ‘enhanced’ and wired and decreasingly human; or to embrace something of the sanctity of the human form – we can use technology, but not become merged with it. This happens via the connection with the alien artifact, which revitalizes aspects of our human ability which had long been suppressed. That the flu virus which had threatened human extinction turns out to have been an artifact of our own technology is just reinforcement of this metaphor.

Don’t mistake me – I am not a technophobe. If I need an artificial heart valve, or a pacemaker, or any similar tech bit installed in my body, then I’m fine with that. But I think the larger issue of integrating optional tech into our bodies will be fraught with dangers, and should not be embraced without real consideration – and I’m not talking about the kind of consideration that the RFID chips got from the FDA.

Jim Downey

“Just go along.”

Many years ago, I read a book which changed how I view the world. It was William Allen’s The Nazi Seizure of Power: The Experience of a Single German Town 1922 – 1945. I no longer remember whether I read it for a college class, or just on my own. And I can no longer really tell you many of the details of the book, but there was one overriding lesson I took from it which remains: that most people will go along with changes instituted by authority figures, so long as those changes seem minor and “for the greater good”. Because the thing about the Nazi rise to power is that it was enabled by ‘good Germans’ – the vast population who were not Nazi ideologues, but were unwilling to stand up to incremental infringement of their civil rights because it would be just too much bother.

I see this as a recurring theme in human history. It is the rare individual who will resist such creeping authoritarianism directly, though many others will find ways to subvert or resist passively (as happened in the USSR and Soviet-block countries), and still more often people will just leave a country under an authoritarian regime given the chance. This is a common theme in literature, and certainly in Science Fiction (read just about anything by Heinlein for the most clear-cut examples), so certainly I was familiar with the trope. But to see how it actually played out in one small German town was sobering.

And it is always sobering to see it play out in small ways in our country today. One such example comes from Michael Righi, writing about his experience of being arrested at Circuit City because he refused first to show a store employee his receipt and let his bag be searched, and then for refusing to provide a cop (whom he summoned) a Driver’s License. From a summation which Righi sent to BoingBoing:

Today I was arrested by the Brooklyn, Ohio police department. It all started when I refused to show my receipt to the loss prevention employee at Circuit City, and it ended when a police officer arrested me for refusing to provide my driver’s license.

There are two interesting stories in one which I thought would be of interest to Boing Boing readers. The first involves the loss prevention employee physically preventing my egress from the property. The second story involves my right as a U.S. citizen to not have to show my papers when asked. (Despite having verbally identified myself, the officer arrested me for failing to provide a driver’s license while standing on a sidewalk.)

You can read the full account at Righi’s blog, and I would urge you to do so. It is disturbing that he was treated this way, and admirable that he stood up for his rights.

But what is most disturbing are the number of commentors who criticize Righi for doing so. These are your fellow citizens who are perfectly happy to “just go along” in the interests of expediency, efficiency (cost savings), and for the common good. They don’t see why Righi should object either to his treatment by Circuit City or by the demand from the police officer that he provide proof of identity.

Now, I’m not saying that the US is in some incipient form of Fascism. But there sure are plenty of people with authoritarian instincts, and even more who are willing to accommodate those instincts in day-to-day life. And that is how rights are lost, freedom forfeit.  As Righi puts it:

I understand that my day would have gone a lot smoother if I had agreed to let loss prevention inspect my bag. I understand that my day would have gone a lot smoother if I had agreed to hand over my driver’s license when asked by Officer Arroyo. However, I am not interested in living my life smoothly. I am interested in living my life on strong principles and standing up for my rights as a consumer, a U.S. citizen and a human being. Allowing stores to inspect our bags at will might seem like a trivial matter, but it creates an atmosphere of obedience which is a dangerous thing. Allowing police officers to see our papers at will might seem like a trivial matter, but it creates a fear-of-authority atmosphere which can be all too easily abused.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI.)

Tag ’em.

A story this morning on Weekend Edition – Saturday about the military’s efforts to recover lost or captured soldiers in Iraq brought up the topic of “tagging” our people with some kind of tracking device. Retired Marine Lt. Col. Gary Anderson was somewhat critical of the current Pentagon leadership that such an application of technology hadn’t been put into more widespread use yet.

His reaction is understandable. The idea of tracking devices of one sort or another has been extremely popular in fiction (everything from spy novels to SF) for decades, and we now have a widespread tech which could be fairly easily adapted for such use: Radio Frequency Identification, or RFID for short. Combine this with the already extant use of battlefield electronics, it should be possible to increase the range of such passive devices without sacrificing size and concealability, allowing for hiding such tags in clothing or even within the body of the soldier. Certainly, this would seem to fit with the current mindset of the military, and would fill the gap until current military tech evolves to have an ‘information-integrated force’ such as I stipulate for Communion.

[Mild spoiler alert.]

In Communion, I apply the tech of the period to have the soldiers ‘wired’ with an array of information-sharing devices, analogous to the type of integrated ‘cyberware’ used by the general population. For military applications, though, the tech is more robust, a little more cutting edge, a bit further advanced in application, to the point of even having “smart guns” which would only function for those using the correct encryption key. This does play a minor part in the plot development at several junctures, and assumes that at all times anyone can be tracked fairly easily.

Anyway, the idea of tagging our people in that kind of war environement seems to be a no-brainer to me.  Yeah, there are privacy issues to be concerned with for the use of such tagging in civilian life, but that is much less an issue for someone in the military.  I expect we’ll see it implemented across the board in the near future…the first step into my predictions about in-body cyberware.

Jim Downey