So, there’s been a bunch of flopping and twitching lately about the fact that the wonderful Nike+iPod kit can be used to track users, and isn’t that a terrible invasion of privacy, and wah-wah-wah.
Well, ladies and gents, I hate to break it to you, but the problem is not so much that Apple and Nike failed to adequately secure the device, but that the laws of physics do not have any privacy provisions, nor do they listen to lawyers from either the EFF or the ACLU (insert your branch here if you’re outside the US).
Can I let you in on a little secret that I picked up back in middle school while reading a book on radio waves in the library? Radio waves don’t care who is listening to them – they continue to radiate from their source, in all directions, and their strength at any point in space is inversely proportional to the square of the distance from the source.
So, yeah – given an antenna and a receiver tuned to the proper frequency (which is in Apple’s patent disclosure for the product), it’s entirely possible to hijack the radio signal from a Nike+ kit. And I, for one, am psyched that it’s been done.
Why? you might ask.
Why not? I’d answer. The Nike transmitter is absolutely freakin’ cool, extremely low power, and cheap. Hack the protocol between sensor and receiver, and you’ve got instant motion sensing for the price of a case of beer.
But what about privacy? What about it? Do you go out of the house with your cell phone? There’s a device for which you should have distinct privacy concerns. Sure, there’s laws against eavsdropping into cell networks, but if someone’s out to harass you or otherwise exploit the Nike+iPod’s miniscule signal, are they going to have qualms about jacking into your cellular signal in roughly the same radio band?
In a larger sense, you should always remember that a loss of privacy is always inherent with the use of any wireless technology. Use a wireless keyboard and mouse? Guess what – someone with an antenna can be logging your keystrokes without even being in the same room as you, or having access to your computer. In Houston, our baby monitor operated on the same band as our neighbor’s cordless phone – we could overhear their conversations, which was supremely spooky the first time it happened – I burst into the baby’s room thinking there was an intruder in there…
There are things you can do to protect yourself. Use a wireless router at the house? Make sure you’ve enabled the encryption scheme – for most routers, there’s a HTML based interface to set the password and require all wireless traffic to use encryption. For cell phones, turn them off when you’re not yakkin’ or expecting a call. Use cash instead of plastic….
The takeaway, I guess, is that, like the old saw says, be careful about airing your dirty laundry in public – if you’re using a device that transmits, assume you’re being spied upon. If you don’t want to be spied upon, send letters.