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Tue, 06 Apr 2004

More Tales From The War On Convenience

The Madrid train bombs were, it seems, command-detonated using mobile phones.

This is a bad thing. It implies that mobile phones are dangerous. Accordingly, the Liberal Democrats' London Mayoral candidate Simon Hughes called for the scrapping of plans to install cellphone base stations on the London Underground. (Background: about half of the Underground's 410 kilometres of track -- it's more than twice as extensive as the Tokyo, New York, or Moscow subways -- runs very deep, so deep that cellphone signals can't penetrate. Transport for London has been talking about installing cellphone base stations in the deep tunnels to make things more convenient for passengers.)

Two thoughs occur to me.

Firstly: only incoming mobile phone calls are a hazard. Only incoming calls are going to set off command-detonated rucksack bombs. It's considerably harder to design a rucksack bomb with a brain that phones home regularly and asks "should I detonate now?" than it is to wire up a phone's vibrate alarm circuit to a firing cap. So outgoing calls are still relatively safe, and it's a bad idea to block them -- they might be somebody calling for an ambulance or the police (or, trivially, phoning home to say they'll be late). Therefore, rather than simply blocking all calls, it makes sense to allow outgoing calls but divert incoming calls and text messages to voice mail.

Secondly: what are the implications for public WiFi hotspots? For bluetooth? For ad hoc mesh networking? For the future of UWB mobile-IP nodes everywhere? For RFID tags? Radio used to be a convenience. Now it's becoming a necessity because the old, inconvenient paper systems it was introduced to supplement are being retired. Stuff doesn't work without it: drivers charge up their car parking credits by cellphone, information kiosks around stations use broadband (and, soon, WiFi) to hook into timetable databases, and so on.

Here's a scary thought experiment. Many GPS receivers have serial or USB interfaces that allow them to talk to computers -- some PDAs now appearing on the market have GPS built in, and they're aimed at the in-car navigation market. It should be relatively easy to ride a bus around a capital city and identify the GPS coordinates of, for example, the American embassy or important government offices. Then, with the aid of a PDA, some software, and a digital to analog converter, it is possible to build a GPS-detonated suitcase bomb -- a bomb which will go off when it comes within a pre-set blast radius of the target, rather than at a pre-set time. There's no reason for the terrorist who planted it to hang around in the same country once it's on the bus. Or to actively send it a detonation command. It's entirely passive, highly accurate, cheap to build -- plant a dozen of these on busses and you have all the makings of another Madrid atrocity. Should we therefore block GPS signals in cities?

We need a public debate on this, and we need it now, because the future is wireless, and as we're discovering wireless technologies massively lower the barrier to causing havoc.

[ Discuss terrorism]

posted at: 14:33 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry


Is SF About to Go Blind? -- Popular Science article by Greg Mone
Unwirer -- an experiment in weblog mediated collaborative fiction
Inside the MIT Media Lab -- what it's like to spend a a day wandering around the Media Lab
"Nothing like this will be built again" -- inside a nuclear reactor complex

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