Sunday, February 25, 2007

RFID data leak

I just read from PC World an article on how new credit cards with embedded RFID could leak your personal information. The article quoted its source from a research paper to be released by the RFID Consortium for Security and Privacy (RFID-CUSP) which is a partnership between academic and industrial scientists specializing in RFID security and privacy. Its mission is to make RFID safe for consumers by conducting open research and educating the next generation work force that will develop, deploy and maintain secure RFID infrastructures. The research paper highlighted the vulnerabilities of the first generation RFID-enabled credit cards.

Name and credit card number are printed on the credit card. More credit information are embedded in the RFID chip to be read by the legitimate credit card terminals used by merchants. What the RFID-CUSP report highlights most significantly is the new physical dimension of vulnerability that RFID credit cards introduce. Without even removing their cards from wallets or pockets, the privacy and security of consumers can be compromised. A scanner in a crowded subway station might surreptitiously harvest credit-card data from passersby. The RFID-CUSP research team dubbed it a “Johnny Carson” attack, which in one of his acts, he revealed the contents of sealed envelopes held against his forehead. Likewise, an attacker can quickly skim data from RFID credit cards in sealed envelopes while they are in transit or sitting in mailboxes.

Credit card companies responded by upgrading second generation RFID-enabled credit cards and excluding names from the data stored in the chip. Thanks to the effort of the scientists who could balance technology and personal privacy, we could have an advanced technological tool which is safe to use.

More sci-fi-like news. Hitachi has invented RFID chip as small as a dust. An article from Wired News reported that tiny computer chips used for tracking food, tickets and other items are getting even smaller. It said "Hitachi Ltd., a Japanese electronics maker, recently showed off radio frequency identification, or RFID, chips that are just 0.002 inches by 0.002 inches and look like bits of powder. They're thin enough to be embedded in a piece of paper, company spokesman Masayuki Takeuchi said Thursday."

This picture shows the new RFID chips placed around a sugar crystal in the middle. The comment is on the scary side, that invisible tracking brings to mind science-fiction-inspired uses, or even abuses, such as unknowingly getting sprinkled with smart-tag powder for Big Brother-like monitoring.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Work Life balance 3

The Japanese way is a good example of another approach to work life balance. I always thought that the common perception of work life balance through the introduction of life activities to balance the stressed work activities is wrong in principle. Work hard play hard is a hazardous approach. Instead, work well play well can maintain balance of body and mind.

You may wish to re-visit my two earlier articles on work life balance on 6 February 2005 and 7 February 2005.

It is good to know the Japanese way of people management by sharing family and personal affairs with co-workers. In many modern cities, such as Hong Kong, people do not normally mix their work and life activities. Some are very mindful of letting others know about personal affairs, and take careful steps to segregate work life and personal life. There is a theory that one should not take the work matters back home, and should not let family affairs get in the way of work.

However, human is a being with good memory, reasoning and analytical talent, and the special ability to correlate various facts and actions. We live through work and personal activities all in a day. It is impossible to switch off your mind after work, or vice versa not to think of personal affairs at work. One typical effect is our emotion. If you have an unhappy work day, you may have a bad mood back home subconsciously. When you come back from a happy vacation, you will have more energy for work.

Work activities and life activities is a continuum in our daily life. They are not a dichotomy exclusive to one another. They are not on opposite ends of a seesaw. Thus when in imbalance, balance cannot simply be restored by having more activities at the other end. It is like bending a stick. If the stick is bent too much to one side, it cannot become straight by bending too much to the other side, which will break the stick. We need gentle moves to get it right again.

My view of a work life balance is a fusion of work and life activities. There is nothing to worry about bringing work home. In fact, your family may be interested in what you do, and you can safely share your joy and frustration of work with them. I heard many stories that children are very excited and proud on what their parents have done at work. Vice versa, some sharing of family affairs with co-workers is good for work atmosphere, which is a good remedy for work stress.

On the practical side, we have continuous learning. There is merit in spending life activities on learning, which may be something concerned with work requirements, or just the broadening of knowledge in a relevant field. We can also have life activities after work with co-workers, chatting away on laughters, current affairs and inescapably work affairs. Some colleagues have good friends who are their co-workers. It is enjoyable to involve friends and co-workers in family gatherings, celebrations and outings. It can strengthen family ties as well as help resolve work conflict and promote mutual understanding. All these contribute much to work life balance. The worst is to put work and life in two separate worlds. In such scenario, if you are depressed from work, you just want to escape to the other side instead of solving the problem; or when there is a family problem, there is no one to cry to.

Some members suggested that colleagues should go out often for a drink, or form a book club to share reading interest; or like what we had a few years back: some work life balance seminars among colleagues to share the joy of hobbies. Such mixing of work and life is a good way to maintain balance.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Technological determinism

There was an article in Wired News on the Seeds of Surveillance. It reported on a symposium on the Fourth Amendment held by the Stanford Technology Law Review. At the symposium, participants asked whether traditional conceptions of constitutional privacy are adequate when modern technology tracks personal information in entirely new ways. You may wish to have a look at the article.

The issue stemmed from the much increased surveillance on members of the public on grounds of prevention of terrorism, and the way that intensive surveillance by closed circuit television cameras infringed on personal privacy. The good-intentioned surveillance has exceeded its original purpose. It even changed the behaviour of the police in that less discretions were exercised. Police were more strict in intervening small civil disturbance owing to the fact that their performance was also being recorded.

The two-edged sword of surveillance is nothing new. Privacy activists have been crying out loud for a long time that uncontrolled surveillance would lead to the 1984 syndrome, unnecessarily infringe too much on privacy, and might lead to a police state. The discussion has now been upgraded to a higher level of the legislative ground. When people were still under the terror of the 911 attack, it would be easy to persuade them to accept a higher level of surveillance on grounds of security. I think the recent London bombing case and its subsequent investigation process gave people a wake up call that the movement of everyone in public places were recorded.

A point in the article that interests me is the notion of technological determinism. It reads: In 1964, Jacques Ellul developed the idea of technological determinism in his book, The Technological Society. Ellul argued that technique, or process, overtakes and dominates human values, and that the logic of technology is such that humans will continually choose to expand its scope, regardless of the effects. Ellul's bleak theory is that once a machine exists, humans will use it, even if that use is not part of the original justification for the machine. In her book Close to the Machine, author Ellen Ullman tells stories of technological determinism in action. Ullman wrote of building a system to improve client care for people with AIDS. The project manager decided to hook it up to other databases to cross-check compliance, funding and other information. She warned that the machine could not keep rounded edges; that its dumb, declarative nature could not comprehend the small, chaotic accommodations to reality which kept human systems running.

If it is deterministic, then all technologies built for surveillance will eventually evolve into a process of surveillance on everything. We may have to pause and consider the consequence. Another view on technological determinism is that it is deterministic for technology to improve and its uses to expand in every possible ways, but that would also mean innovative and creative uses of existing and developing technologies, which is actually the basis of scientific and technological development. On the other hand, privacy is a moral concept which is subject to self reflection and change. With the ever accelerating scientific development, it is possible that technology in advanced form will let everyone know the mind of everyone else, which is the ultimate transparency of all information. By that time, the question of surveillance and privacy will not exist.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Charitable organizations and environmental groups

A friend commented on the situation of some under privileged highly educated members of the society, that some university graduates work as telephone salesmen or street salesmen of insurance, properties and telecommunication services, etc. I reflect on some colleagues who cry day and night on hard work, not being recognised of their effort, not able to cope with a demanding boss. I have sympathy on them, both my subordinates and my supervisors. However, I could not lie and give poor performer an excellent appraisal; nor could I answer all cold calls, visit all properties on sale, and subscribe to both NOW and i-Cable. I donate a large amount to charity, but I am also quite suspicious of the bogus charitable organizations which try to exploit my charitable heart for money. I usually ask the schoolboys selling flags on which organization they represent and the charitable services offered. I do not donate to people wandering in the street asking for money to help children and elderlies in the mainland. I do my own research and donate to reputable bodies, and I am poisoned by glorious stories and advertisements. In the end, I am content in giving only to medical charitable organizations and a few more I know personally, but not to environmental groups.

On my pessimistic mind, which is only so in this aspect, I view the effort of the environmentalist futile. All the facts they said are true: that human is warming up the earth, we are using up all natural resources, unfair (or too fair) trade deprives the developing countries, the growing gap of rich and poor, uneven distribution of resources and wealth. However, the problems cannot be solved just by asking the developed countries to save on natural resources, emit less carbon dioxide and give generously to the unproductive human population. First, people are short sighted and are overly protective of their vested interest. Second, developing countries will develop and produce more polluters and hungry consumers of resources faster than developed countries can save. Third, the growing human population will cause the global eco-system unsustainable. The have-not population will continue to grow while the supply of resources will continue to fall. We are heading towards a catastrophe, or a sudden big adjustment, or the twist in the kinky curve. This occurred many times throughout history. It can be caused by a violent revolution, nuclear war, incurable epidemic, sudden but long term climate change, a meteor strike, super volcano eruption, solar corona mass ejection, reverse of the earth magnetic field, rise of the hydrogen sulphide layer from the ocean, etc. We will eventually have an adjustment which could wipe out a very large percentage of human population, plus the civilization; and then hopefully we could start all over again. The expert said this will likely occur tomorrow or 1 million years later. I take that to mean 500 thousand years so that I can sleep well tonight.