Technology Futures

Commentaries on Directions That Will Impact the Future of Technology

Archive for the category “Security”

The Personal Cloud: Truth or Dare?

Analysts love to coin new expressions.  The one I’m most proud of is “Business Intelligence,” which I thought was a lot sexier than “data mining” and “data warehousing,” two earlier expressions which meant essentially the same thing.   IBM and a couple of other big companies jumped on the Business Intelligence bandwagon and made it an IT proverb.  I shoulda copyrighted or trademarked it, or started a domain business-intelligence .com.  Mighta made a few bucks.  Water under the dam.

I was impressed the other day when I saw a reference to the “Personal Cloud.”  This expression is claimed by Gartner Group, possibly the world’s largest techy analyst company, and mentioned prominently in a recent press release entitled “Gartner Says the Personal Cloud Will Replace the Personal Computer as the Center of Users’ Digital Lives by 2014.”  (Unfortunately, is already a registered domain name, indicating that Gartner isn’t any smarter than I was.)

In any event, I read the press release.  I thought it made sense -sort of.  Do you agree with the following quote?

“Gartner analysts said the personal cloud will begin a new era that will provide users with a new level of flexibility with the devices they use for daily activities, while leveraging the strengths of each device, ultimately enabling new levels of user satisfaction and productivity. However, it will require enterprises to fundamentally rethink how they deliver applications and services to users.”

The 46-word opening sentence aside (my composition professor would have slammed that writer), I agree that users will  potentially be more productive using the cloud, but I’m having a tough time with the prediction that enterprises will have to rethink how they deliver services to users.  In my experience, enterprises seldom rethink anything.  Rather, they change as little as possible so as not to freak out those users and make more work for themselves.

Don’t get me wrong.  I think the cloud is terrific.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, the timeshare business of the late 60s – early 90s essentially offered cloud computing, but, in those days, networks were slow and storage capacity limited.  Today’s broadband networks and virtually unlimited random access storage enable a user to do almost anything online instead of the desktop.  The only real barrier to cloud computing is security, an issue that I believe will never get resolved.

If you are skeptical about the cloud, I’d like you to test out an app called Dropbox, a web-based file hosting service.  You can get a free single-user account or an account that can be shared by several users.  The learning curve is practically non-existent.  It’s a great example of cloud storage.

You can also try some cloud apps.  If you use Google’s gmail or calendar, you are already apping in the cloud!  Others you can try for free are Quicken Online, WordPress (blogging service that I am using right now), and Adobe Photoshop Express.  Check out this website, “10 cloud apps that slam-dunk their desktop counterparts.”

Of course, these personal apps have little to do with enterprise applications, but will certainly give you a taste of the possible.


Whatever Happened to Smart Cards?

Recently, the Lucky supermarket chain had many of its self-checkout stands “hacked” by technically sophisticated persons who were able to insert a device in the checkout machines that captured credit card numbers and PINs and transmitted that information wirelessly to receivers unknown.  Because Lucky’s management took its sweet time informing customers whose cards were hacked, there was a lot of notoriety that accompanied this particular scam.

The weak link in this scam as in many others, is the ubiquitous credit/debit card.  Given the technology extant today, these cards have to be among the most vulnerable devices in the modern world.   I think most people would be amazed to know that there is a solution to the vulnerability of these cards, and that it was invented in 1968!  That solution is known colloquially as a Smart Card.

Smart Cards usually look like regular credit cards, but they have a chip imbedded in them that contains a processor, memory, and, in some cases, a wireless transceiver.  You may be familiar with one form of smart card , often called a transponder, that is used to automatically pay bridge and road tolls.  When you pass through the tollgate, your transponder sends a signal to a reader in the gate that identifies your vehicle.  That data is then used to debit your account for the toll.

The chip in the card is programmable.  It can, for example, store biometric information, such as fingerprints or retinal scan data.  It can also be powered without needing a battery using an inductor that can capture power from a radio signal.

Despite the obvious advantages of a smart card over and above a dumb one, they have never caught on in a major application.  The big application is, of course, credit/debit cards.  Although Visa, Mastercard and Europay worked together in the early 1990s to develop a smart card specification, it was never implemented.  The banks claimed it would cost more to replace credit card readers with smart card readers than the losses they sustained from credit card fraud!

Today, smart cards have, with one exception, been relegated to special applications such as company security access and club membership cards.  The one generic application in use today is the SIM (Subscriber Identification Module) cards used in  GSM mobile phones in Europe.

I recall working with an Australian company that had invented a system it called BagTag.  The idea was that airline baggage tags attached to bags and the claim stubs carried by passengers would have smart card type chips imbedded in them.  A checked bag’s registration would be captured at the baggage check-in counter.  Then, when the passenger checked in at the gate, his claim stubs would be read and compared with those of the checked bags.  If the readings failed to match, security would know immediately that there is a problem.  Unfortunately, the airlines were unwilling to try it, and the company did not have the resources to develop and sell it without financial support from the airlines.  Aside from the security benefits of the application, the system could also be used to find lost baggage more efficiently than the bar code system currently being used.

Thus, the benefits of smart cards are obvious, and for many applications, cost-effective as well.  They would go far to protect consumers from ID theft and would effectively address many security issues.  Reluctance to change the way things are done on the part of banks, credit card processors, etc. is the culprit, exacerbated by a lack of leadership by government entities.

Think about how airport security problems would be resolved if travelers had to carry smart cards that identified them with 100% reliability.  How about eliminating credit card ID theft?  The solution is the smart card, but the prospective users are too dumb to see it.

If you are interested in reading more about smart cards, take a look at the Wikipedia article on the subject.

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