Obese Texters, Back to the Future, and Scams

I make an appearance on the excellent Breakfast Club show on Radio Australia each Friday at about 01:15 GMT and some listeners have asked me post links to the stuff I talk about, so here they are.

Texting reduces obesity

If your kids are getting a little overweight, then treat them to a bit of texting. But it’s not quite how it sounds (I thought it might be something to do with the aerobic workout you get from the thumb twiddling.) No, a study by the University of North Carolina suggests that if obese kids are encouraged to keep a record of their eating habits via SMS, they are more likely to adhere to the health regimen—less TV, more exerices, less Coke—than those who just wrote down the same information. (Attrition rate was 28% against 61% for the paper diary kids and 50% for the control group.)

Part of this may be down to the fact that the kids get instant feedback via SMS on their results. So actually this is more about the interactivity of health regimes rather than the physical benefits of cellphones or texting. (Actually this whole SMS for health thing is quite a meme. Check out this conference here.)

The miracles of life in 2000—as seen from 1950

Popular Mechanics of February 1950 predicted a number of things, some of which have come true, some of which haven’t, and some of which should, if we got our act together.

What they got right

  • Highways broad without any curves
  • Doubledecked highways
  • soup and milk come in frozen bricks (but thought that cooking would be a thing of the past)
  • TV connected to the phone; but would buy stuff over the TV with store clerks holding the goods up obligingly for customers to inspect…
  • robots in factories, but controlled by punch cards
  • air travel would be frequent, but expensive because of jet fuel; rocket plane fare from Chicago to Paris would cost $5000

What they got wrong

  • Heart of the town is the airport
  • Clean as a whistle and quiet
  • Crime to burn raw coal
  • Illumnitated by electric suns on 200 ft high towers
  • A house would cost only $5000 to build
  • Houses don’t last more than 25 years
  • Wash using chemicals that shave as well.
  • Dishes dissolves in superheated water, so no washing machines
  • Plastics derived from cottonseed hulls, Jerusalem artichocks and and fruit pips
  • Clean the house by turning a hose on it; everything is synthetic fabric of waterproof plastic; drain in the middle of the floor
  • worried by mass starvation, scientists came up with food from sawdust, table linen and rayon underwear converted into sweets
  • ‘calculators’ would predict the weather
  • storms diverted
  • no one would have gone to the moon—yet…

What I wish they’d gotten right

  • Used underwear recyled into candy

Scam lady

Janella Spears, nursing administrator in a place called Sweet Home, Oregon, who practices CPR and is a reverend, has given $400,000 to scammers. She got letters from President Bush, the president of Nigeria and FBI director Robert Mueller. Wiped out husband’s retirement account, mortgaged the house and took out a lien on the family car. Everyone told her to stop but she didn’t.

This is the problem with scams; it’s very hard to accept you’ve been scammed, and so perversely it’s easier to continuing giving money in the belief that it will all come good.

Pocket Keys

A team at UCal San Diego have come up with software, called Sneakey, that can take a picture of a key and convert it to a bitting code, which is enough for a locksmith to make a new key:

  1. The user provides point locations on the target key with a reference key as a guide.
  2. The system warps the target image into the pose of the reference key and overlays markings of where the bite codes are to be found.
  3. The user specifies where the cut falls along each line and the bit depths are decoded by the system into a bitting code.

In one experiment, the Sneakey team installed a camera on their four story department building (77 feet above the ground) at an acute angle to a key sitting on a café table 195 feet away. The image captured (below) was correctly decoded.

They’ve not released the software but say it would be pretty easy to put together.

Do Passports Plus RFID Tags Make Us Walking Targets?

RFID tags? Sinister chip or harmless piece of plastic and wire?

I’ve been on the side of the former for some time, but in the face of some objection from readers. A listener to a piece I did on the BBC World Service a few weeks back about the danger that RFID tags would give up too much information to anyone interested — shops, sleazeballs, governments, terrorists — wrote in to say:

Your correspondent seemed in danger of propagating the fiction that RFID tags can be read from a distance.

A RFID tag contains no power source. The read head, the device that interrogates the tag, actually transmits power to it to enable it in turn to transmit the information it contains. With most tags the range over which this will work is much less than a metre – in general the smaller the tag the smaller the range.

In other words when I am walking down the street it will not be possible for MI5 to determine where or when I bought the tagged pack of tomatoes I am carrying…

This prompted me to do a bit more digging, and I concluded thus in a reply I prepared at the time:

  • First off, distance is not really the issue. The reader, the machine that reads the RFID tag, could be placed anywhere — at entrances to shops, buildings, carparks, subways — to pick up information on those tags. The reader, therefore would simply pick up the information as a person passes it. In short, it’s not necessarily a question of whether MI5 is remotely trying to figure out the origin of your tomatoes from a rooftop, but that sensors placed around cities, installed for commercial, retail or government use, could easily gather this information without your knowledge.
  • Secondly, while it’s true that until recently RFID tags may only be readable by a normal reader within a few feet, many tags now can be read from further away. Others are already being developed that would be read over longer distances: Japanese manufacturer Toppan, for example, has just created an RFID chip that can be read 5 metres away. That’s across the room or street.
  • Thirdly, while it’s true that most RFID tags are passive (without a battery) some are active (with a battery inside) meaning that they can be read over much longer distances — between 100 and 300 ft (up to 100 metres) at present, I believe.
  • Fourthly, it’s quite possible to incorporate a reader with a high-gain antenna, in which case tags can be read at much greater distances; in some extreme cases, according to the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, up to several kilometres away.

Some of these items may not be commercially available yet, but it’s shortsighted to suggest that RFID technology is not improving so quickly that it will not reach the point where it becomes an important social issue, including MI5’s ability to gain access to your tomatoes.

Still, there’s clearly a lot of debate about this, and I was speaking to some RFID folk in Australia who say the security concerns are too far down the track to worry about, since RFID is still too young a technology to be really deployable. Reading a tag is still too tricky, apparently, for it to work properly in a commercial setting.

With all this in mind, it’s interesting to read Bruce Schneier in today’s IHT warning in no uncertain terms of the dangers inherent in the U.S. demand that countries issue passports with RFID tags in them. He points out the absurdity of arguing that RFID tags can only be read from a few centimetres away:

Proponents of the system claim that the chips can be read only from within a distance of a few centimeters, so there is no potential for abuse. This is a spectacularly naïve claim. All wireless protocols can work at much longer ranges than specified. In tests, RFID chips have been read by receivers 20 meters away. Improvements in technology are inevitable.

Bruce’s point is that this means the passports can be read by anyone who gets even vaguely close, leaving the holder vulnerable to anyone with an interest: “It means that pickpockets, kidnappers and terrorists can easily – and surreptitiously – pick Americans or nationals of other participating countries out of a crowd.”

His conclusion is unusually forthright:

The [Bush] administration wants surreptitious access themselves. It wants to be able to identify people in crowds. It wants to surreptitiously pick out the Americans, and pick out the foreigners. It wants to do the very thing that it insists, despite demonstrations to the contrary, can’t be done.

Normally I am very careful before I ascribe such sinister motives to a government agency. Incompetence is the norm, and malevolence is much rarer. But this seems like a clear case of the Bush administration putting its own interests above the security and privacy of its citizens, and then lying about it.

I have no idea whether that bit about the Bush administration is true or not. It’s scary if it is, because it indicates that RFID is just the kind of technology we should be worried about. But for present purposes it doesn’t matter much: What matters is that we establish whether or not it’s possible to ‘snarf’ data from RFID tags in the same way Bluetooth experts have successfully showed the inherent dangers in Bluetooth-enabled phones. If someone can show that grabbing data from RFID tags at a reasonable distance is not just an academic exercise, maybe voices like Bruce’s will be heard in time to do something about it, whether it’s someone knowing my shoe size or my nationality.

Spam Law Passed, Not Many Impressed

The U.S. Congress has passed the anti-spam bill, after the House voted to approve minor Senate amendments, The Register reports. Not everyone thinks it’s a good idea. The Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing (CAN-SPAM) Act does more harm than good in the fight against spam, according to critics.

The bill criminalises common spamming tactics, such as using false return address. But it overrides Californian laws which had allowed spam recipients to sue spammers. The bill requires online marketeers to act on requests to “opt out” of future emails, unlike European Union legislation which requires them to seek the permission of consumers first.

The Can-Spam Act is expected to be signed into law by President Bush before the start of next year.