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The Future of Data

[More thinking-aloud about how tags and spimes will change things. I'm also in the middle of Everyware and am trying to finish this while reading that.

I said I'd be writing about security next, but I ended up thinking about about the future of data in terms of public policy and societal issues regarding collection and ownership of data. Security is in the queue, but I need to figure out the requirements and context before I think about the implementation.]

The Future of Data

A world filled with RFID tags, smart tags, readers, and spimes reveals a vast amount of easily accessible data not previously available to the individual. A store currently has an idea of its inventory, shrinkage, and daily sales, but I as a shopper wouldn’t know any of that information. A movie theatre would know how many tickets it sold while as a guy watching a movie I can only do a rough count of empty seats and make a guess.

In the near future you or I will be able to know these things, should we choose. We will be able to wander through a public place and automatically collect vast amounts of information in a form easily used by computers instead of tediously taking notes and making spreadsheets.

Think about the world we’re about to inhabit:

  • Any object with a more than nominal monetary value has some sort of RFID-like tag used to track the object from creation thru the point of sale and afterwards into its usable lifespan. Not only will the merchant you bought a shirt from know you bought a shirt (and link that information to your customer account), they’ll know every time you wear it past or into their store. You didn’t just buy a shirt, you gave them a fair amount of useful marketing information when you used your credit card to buy the shirt and even more if you ordered it online and had it delivered. If you physically enter a store, the odds are that they’ll also be able to determine who made all the other items on your person and possibly what those items are, then tweak their sales pitch at an individualized level.
  • Your PDBD is blasting out data to any device that queries it or broadcasting in cleartext to every device in range. So is everyone else’s, and simple proximity mapping will make it trivial to plot each step by each person through public and even private spaces.
  • Readers are everywhere: every business or home has one at the entrance, and most have several inside that operate on different classes of tags using domain specific requirements. The door reader looks for all tags, the inside reader looks for local tags or those that meet a limited set of criteria. Think inventory tracking vs. employee tracking, then imagine every object worth more than a few bucks have its own unique serial number and tracking device.
  • Really, readers are everywhere: every commercial delivery vehicle with have some sort of tag reading mechanism to track packages between being picked up and delivered. Reading the contents of those packages will be trivial, and delivery firms will not just have databases of who ships how many packages and to whom, but the contents of those packages will be known.
  • Spimes and other types of smart objects (smobjects? smaarbjects?) are collecting data from their surroundings and reporting it back to their owner or the general public. “Data” is any information that can be collected and stored: location, time, temperature, number and type of other tags and spimes seen, data those smart objects have transmitted, etc.
  • Proto-spimes are doing this now: A case of expensive wine can know if its been stored at the correct temperatures, a laptop will know if it’s been dropped, a shipment of fragile goods can know if it’s been subjected to improper environments. Take a look at Maxim’s iButtons for an inexpensive, common, off-the-shelf (COTS) example of the technology required to track environments of packages or equipment.

How Your Role Will Change

The technology to collect, store and analyze vast numbers of RFID or other smart tags is about to become very accessible to the masses, very portable and very easy to hide. RFID and other inexpensive tagging mechanisms won’t have the sort of security that a full-on spime has and will be easily readable by just about anyone. (To keep things simple, I’m going to lump publicly readable data from spimes in with data from RFID, bar codes, and other insecure tagging mechanisms and refer to them all as “tags”.)

In a short time — months or a couple of years at most — it will be trivial to build an advanced tag monitoring system that not only scans all nearby tags but call also passively eavesdrop on other scanners as they communicate with tags. Your involvement in the participatory panopticon will go from one of passive participation to active engagement. You no longer have to be just another data point, you can also be a collector, analyzer and interpreter of data and a distributor of information.

What happens today if you wander in with a pad of paper and start writing down a store’s inventory and pricing based on what’s on the shelves with the intent to post it to a web site? You’ll probably get kicked out of the store because most stores have policies about what data you can collect while you’re on their premises. (Try it at your local Wal-Mart if you don’t believe me.)

But what if data collection isn’t obvious? Today, you get kicked out of a store because you are obviously collecting data they don’t want you to collect. What if it just looks like you’re idly browsing through the racks and shelves? Will they kick you out for simply browsing?

In the near future, anyone will be able to wander in to a store with a PDA in their jacket or backpack and a tag scanner up their sleeve and start reading tags on any nearby merchandise. To any human, they will look like someone idly wandering around the store — the typical bored person waiting on their spouse to finish shopping. Perhaps a nearby tag reader would throw exceptions about tag reads that they didn’t request, but would any human get notified in a reasonable amount of time?

Data as Property

Who “owns” the data you just collected with your portable tag scanner and who can do what with it? Is it yours? Does it belong to the store? Facts can be copyrighted, is the state of the store’s inventory a fact that can be somehow put under copyright? Or do you now own a database of facts that you collected in a public space for which you own the copyright?

I can stroll up and down every aisle in a small store at the mall in a matter of minutes, plenty of time to scan not only the inventory on the shelves but the overstock under the shelves and maybe what’s in the back room. If I’m lucky I’ll also get data on other customers in the store and possibly record a few purchase transactions. (One would hope that purchase transactions use some sort of strong cryptography, but I can imagine plenty of systems that use weak or no security in the interests of saving a few pennies.)

When you enter a store and a monitor at the door reads all the tags on your person, what can they do with that data? Do they own it? Do you own it? If I sit in the middle of the food court at the mall with my laptop reading data on all the passersby, what can I do with that data? How about if I monitor the reads being performed by the scanners at the doors of businesses? What if I monitor my competitor’s reader across the way? Next time you’re in a shopping mall, notice at how close together doorways and cash registers are, how many are within line of site of one another, and how many of those businesses are competitors who would benefit greatly from this sort of data.

Data as Property Today. Here’s a question to ask yourself: “Who can collect what data in my household and what can they do with it? Do you have a DVR in your house or a digital cable box? Do you have other consumer electronics devices in your entertainment center that can contact a remote server using phone or broadband? How do you know these devices aren’t recording the clickstreams of all your remotes, not just the one that each obeys? There’s no magic that says “only send my remote control infra-red beam to a specific unit”, anything in your entertainment center is going to receive an IR signal from any remote you use and could be collecting your remote presses and sending them off to a third party. If you’re concerned about the answer to this questions, read the privacy policies for the services you subscribe to or contact the companies providing you service.

Hacking the Near Future

So far we’re just talking about COTS technology and most (all?) of these things can or will be done with commercially available tag reading software and hardware. If you want to start writing your own code or hacking your own hardware your data collection and distribution options are greatly increased.

Today you can build an extended range RFID “skimmer” that can poll tags well outside the normal operational range of a few centimeters (See Kirschenbaum and Wool, “How to Build a Low-Cost, Extended-Range RFID Skimmer”.) Yes, it’s bulky and obvious, but you could probably hide one under the counter at a cash register, near a doorway in your business, or in the backseat of your car.

As you’re collecting data from tags in the world around you, you’ll probably pick up a few that are authentication mechanisms of one sort or another. These are useful for replay attacks — when someone copies an authentication token and re-uses it at a later time without the owner’s permission. In the RFID and token world, this could be anything from a toll road account to an employee door badge.

Current RFID and Smart Tag Security. WIRED has an excellent article on RFID hackers worth reading. My personal experience with tags is similar: I have worked with some physical security systems based on RFID-like technology that did everything in the clear and with no authentication. Duplicating a specific card’s ID number was simply a matter of sniffing the transaction at the door reader or using a “rogue” door reader attached to a PC to query a card. No authentication was used by the card to verify the identity of the reader making the request and the server had no way of knowing if the card ID number presented was from the original card or a physical duplicate. Imagine security based on responding with a correct answer to a simple question:
“What is your employee ID number?”
“Access granted.”Do you feel comfortable knowing that any person who said “12″ could open the door to your building? Or would you prefer some sort of verification along the lines of, “Only current employees of the company who answer the question with their secret serial number” or “Only people I trust who know today’s serial number” to be used as conditions for access?

Crimes, Hacking and Pranking

A high powered tag pinger that could query all tags within a meters feet would be a handy thing for me to have if I were of a criminal bent. Instead of guessing which bag to steal from a passerby, which locker to break into at the gym, or which package to steal from a delivery truck I can just wander around scanning things until I find a likely target.

From the other side of the data equation, what’s to stop someone from making bogus tags or making a device that responds as if it were a tag but with bogus data? Someone might notice me physically replacing the bar-code on an item in a store or trying to remove a security tag, but will they notice the RFID emulator in my courier bag? Will they be able to tell that I used it to drown out the tags of any items I have with me as I go through the checkout line or walk past the security scanners at the door?

Theft is a criminal act for which I can be prosecuted, but what if I just send out bogus data with no intent to commit forgery or fraud? Me and a few dozen of my pals looked like poorly dressed people who wandered in to a high end store, looked at a bunch of expensive merchandise and walked out out without buying anything. However, the tag reader at the door logged us as well dressed individuals carrying laptops or expensive cameras. When the store owners sit down to analyze all their demographic data, they’re going to be looking at some very bogus information that will probably lead them to make improper business decisions.

If I suspect my competitor across the way at the mall is snooping on tag activity at my store, what’s to stop me from generating false tag activity? Is it (or should it be) illegal to broadcast fake transactions or other data knowing that my competitors will collect and interpret that data?

Some Questions

These aren’t new issues, but the technology that makes business more efficient makes everything else equally efficient. Hacking, crimes, invasion of privacy, &tc all become more efficient as well. We need to answer some new questions and come up with new answers for old questions:

  • What is data?
  • What data can be owned and what is in the public domain?
  • Who can own data?
  • What safeguards does an owner of data have to take to prevent that data from being exposed to the public?
  • How is ownership of data determined?
  • Who can control data collection?
  • Who should control data collection?
  • What rights are there to collect data, if those rights even exist?
  • What rights are there to prevent collection of data, if those rights even exist?

When I started writing this, I was thinking about securing tags, proto-spimes, and spimes by first determining the requirements created by their environment. I quickly realized that many of the questions I was asking were questions about public policy, laws and social agreements, not questions about technology. The security questions are important but they’re simple engineering problems and will be easily solved once we know the requirements. The questions about how public policy, legal and social agreements will change are much harder to answer than the security questions; our answers will have profound impact on what our world looks like in the coming decades.

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