Cyber Society - InformationWeek
Infrastructure // PC & Servers
06:58 PM
Patricia Keefe
Patricia Keefe

Cyber Society

As I was picking through a stack of newspapers I was getting ready to recycle this past weekend, I kept seeing examples of how advances in high technology and its movement beyond the workplace are creating new opportunities for the good, the bad, and the ever rude. It's also starting to spur debate about appropriate applications of some of this technology, while also bringing to a head the issue of how best to deal with some of the fallout. The kinds of questions that come to mind include:

As I was picking through a stack of newspapers I was getting ready to recycle this past weekend, I kept seeing examples of how advances in high technology and its movement beyond the workplace are creating new opportunities for the good, the bad, and the ever rude. It's also starting to spur debate about appropriate applications of some of this technology, while also bringing to a head the issue of how best to deal with some of the fallout.

The kinds of questions that come to mind include: How can we use emerging mobile digital technology to improve how we get things done, or even to address social problems? What's the best way to enable people to use their technology without infringing on anyone else's rights or interfering with other activities? These questions keep popping up, and it's probably going to come down to what we're willing to trade off for convenience, and what we're willing to put up with.For example, I saw a story not too long ago about wireless signals from consumer applications interfering with the use of technology at a local business. You can imagine that situation is only going to intensify. And already we're seeing stories about fears that Wi-Fi poses a health risk. That debate is just heating up.

Here's a sampling of other ways the digital sphere is weaving into the fabric of everyday life, sometimes smoothly, sometimes not:

* Here's one for public safety: In Boston, authorities are urging judges to make electronic bracelets the accessory de rigueur for violent criminals put on probation. Of particular interest are the repeat offenders (which raises the question of whether these guys are the best candidates for probation, but I digress). Of course, forcing electronic bling on high-risk, registered sex offenders is already in practice in some areas, so it's not hard to see Boston's push going nationwide. And it's easier still to imagine that electronic bracelets could also be used to make sure defendants, and perhaps even reluctant witnesses, show up at trial.

* The modern-day Swiss Army knife isn't a knife, although that capability will probably be added soon. It's your cell phone. You already know its functions as a medium for pictures, video, Internet access, and multiple forms of communication. But here are some other emerging uses: as an alarm clock, a new form of musical expression, and a wallet, coming soon to a ringtone near you.

Startup Harmony Line Inc. ran a ringtone composition contest this month for MIT contestants only (the founder has MIT connections), with U2's The Edge and AI pioneer Marvin Minsky as two of the judges. Ringtones are already big business (people need more to do, clearly), enough so that Billboard has a top-20 ringtone chart sponsored by the CTIA-The Wireless Association. Whether original ringtones will take off is still up in the air, but there's a new movement afoot to sell commercials to iPod users, to in turn share with others. How's that for viral marketing? Even better, the audience pays for the privilege of spreading your message. Better add ad-blocking to the list of must-have cell phone services.

The cell-phone-as-wallet is closer than you think. In as little as the next six to 18 months, you might see cell phones in use as payment tools in places where there are transaction terminals, according to Johan Valentin, General Manager for the Americas for SmartTrust, a global mobile device management company. He notes that wallet phones aren't just used as credit cards--they can contain entrance tickets, metro tickets, loyalty cards, air tickets, and employee ID cards. They're already in use in South Korea and Japan.

Such advancements aren't problem free. With all that personal data and access to finances, there are going to be physical and technical security issues. Obviously, users will need to closely guard their cell phones, which are about to become prime targets for thieves. I'm guessing you can kiss those cute, hanging cell phone holders goodbye--too easy to literally rip off. McAfee, meanwhile, is already selling security software for mobile devices. Other hurdles to surmount include mobile device management, providing a common communication layer, and building the infrastructure needed to accept payment from these phones. I just hope that every time someone uses a cell phone to pay or gain entry to something, we're not subjected to the cacophony of competing ringtones!

* Hate to wait in grocery lines while the people ahead of you corral their kids, talk on cells, fidget with coupons, and rummage through their wallets and purses? Well, there may be less of that going forward, depending on where you shop. At the very least, you don't have to be one of those people. According to Fortune magazine, grocery and discount stores such as Wal-Mart and Costco are looking into letting customers pay by scanning their fingerprints. Such systems, already in use at Albertsons, Cub Foods, and Piggly Wiggly, will enable retailers to eliminate labor, speed up checkout, cut processing costs, and lower transaction processing fees. The issue of course is privacy. Do you want your biometric data filed somewhere in return for the privilege of closing out a transaction faster?

Security is a separate issue. You don't, as I thought, actually leave your fingerprints on file with your favorite retailers. The vendor, Pay By Touch, informs me that the information, a finger template of sorts, is actually encrypted at the point of sale, and stored at its IBM data centers - not in the merchant's system. This is all good, though how hacker proof it is I don't know. Everyone thought debit cards were hacker proof - they aren't, thanks to stupid human error. So at the end of the day, the security of the data is something consumers will have to consider when assessing this payment system.

* The greater society seems to be coming down hard on beeping, peeping cell phones--they're being banned from gyms, restaurants, and schools, though oddly, you never read about movie theaters banning them. However, if you can't shut your phone off or leave it behind, not to worry. The latest trend seems to be the creation of cell phone-friendly areas. For example, a recent article about dining pet peeves in the Boston Globe quoted one restaurateur as saying a trial of the concept was so successful in its existing eateries that it will become a standard part of blueprints for future restaurants. Look for more restaurants and gyms to follow suit.

* It's not just landlines that are on the way out (can you say Vonage?). City officials are starting to target pay phones, already on the endangered list for many reasons (can you say vandals?). Pay phones have long attracted drug dealers in poor neighborhoods, so it's not unusual for local police to want them removed. But this creates a hardship for residents who don't have phone service or cell phones. One possible solution may be prepaid cell phones, which are becoming cheaper by the minute. Meanwhile, with dealers all beepered up, packing cell phones of their own and "crackberries," monopolizing neighborhood pay phones just seems so retro.

* Identity theft: It's not just about employee records, bank accounts, Social Security numbers, and online credit card info. One fraud ring used illegally obtained college transcripts of local students to forge ID cards and receive fraudulent, instant credit. Clearly, no scrap of personal data is safe, and it's going to have to become a lot more cumbersome to obtain copies of your own records and account data--and soon.

* Finally, a frightening look at the new rude--the incessant cell phone user who won't turn the phone off for anyone or any reason. I saw a fascinating TV news magazine interview last week chronicling a businesswoman's devotion to her cell. She was proud of the fact that she could be reached anywhere at any time and was completely uncaring that her phone use was disruptive and upsetting to others. It has gotten her banned from weddings, funerals, and other such social gatherings. Even her husband has snapped a time or two. But no matter. Anyone who wants to accompany her anywhere "has to accept" that she may have to take a call, she says. (I met her male twin on a recent trip to the airport.) It's the new rude: May their numbers be small, and their signals weak.

These are just a few examples where business technologies or advances and our personal or societal needs have meshed and, at times, clashed. What do you see as the best, and the worst, of business technology crossover into our personal lives?

Separately, you can help us take a bead on how the adoption of consumer technologies is impacting your company's IT strategies. How will your company support these technologies in the coming years? Share your opinions with the editors of InformationWeek by completing our brief and confidential survey on Evolving IT Priorities. Besides, in return for your response, you could win one of five Apple iPod Nanos valued at $199.

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