Introduction: Why Gadgets Betray Us

The author opens with a handful of anecdotes of drivers who followed the instructions of their GPS navigation units to comical and sometimes tragic results: driving down railroad tracks, through a construction site, even into a body of water. As more and more people adopted these wonderful devices (900 million), such stories abounded. They were considered newsworthy at one point, but in time they became so commonplace as to lose their novelty.

Clearly, there was a problem, but there was some disagreement as to its nature. The victims and their advocates protested that the technology was "bad" and following the directions their GPS units provided literally led them astray. Another perspective is that the drivers themselves were at fault for relying too much on technology - a reasonable person with common sense would look out their window and recognize that something was wrong, or at the very least ignore a suggestion to turn right, when "right" would take you right off the road, and right into a river.

If the devices were programmed to deliberately mislead them, it would be a clear case of wrongdoing by the manufacturers. But this wasn't the case: the manufactures took great pains to make them as good as possible, even though it wasn't ultimately quite good enough.

It's in the nature of man to look for an easier way of doing things, and in the nature of technology to find a solution. At first, technology is a convenience, but at some point it becomes a technology that people cannot do without. When the power shuts down in an office building, work comes to a complete and utter stop. People literally do not know what to do without it. Even technicians, once highly-skilled workers, now rely on "wizards" for the simple task of installing software, and don't understand how to troubleshoot a desktop computer without step-by-step instructions from a diagnostic program that does the thinking for them.

The easier the technology is to use, the more debilitated a user becomes. Schoolchildren who use calculators cannot do simple math without them. Drivers who rely on a GPS to direct them can't use a map or find their way from one place to another by reading street signs and looking out of their windows. There will likely come a day that, when the GPS unit goes dark, a driver will have to pull to the side of the road and wait for assistance.

Compounding the problem of the unreliability of technology is its vulnerability to exploitation by those who have a smidgeon more understanding than those who rely upon it as users.

The example was given of tampering with roadside warning signs. As soon as "hackers" figured this out, there were photos and videos of signs displaying ludicrous message - "WARNING: BULLFIGHT AHEAD." Because the signs accepted simple instructions sent by unencrypted radio waves, this wasn't the work of criminal masterminds - people with just a little equipment and a smidgeon of knowledge could do this. In other instances, such weaknesses could be exploited by more skilled hackers with more malicious intentions.

There is also the problem of manufactures who seek to do things efficiently. For example, the iPhone does not always use actual GPS for the location service, but tracks the user's Wi-Fi connection to determine the location. It's not as accurate, but it's more efficient, and to Apple, it seems an acceptable compromise.

And finally, there are the myriad of marketing companies that seek to capture information about people in order to market to them. There is considerable objection to their actions, which constitute an invasion of privacy that is generally no worse than a general sense of discomfort and embarrassment, though the panic is ratcheted up considerably by implications of what someone else might do with the same level of information.

The Focus of this Book

The present book isn't intended to explore the inherent capabilities and limitations, or to lament the lack of common sense in the average consumer, but to raise awareness about the way in which our dependency of technology leaves us vulnerable to our own stupidity and the malice of others.

As consumers, we don't care about the way things work - we just want them to work - and we often don't realize the danger until we've already suffered damage. As such, we should consider the "dark side" to technology, be aware of when we choose to rely on modern gadgets, and recognize that the greater the complexity of the gadget, the greater our exposure to harm.

The convenience of a microchip inside a toaster to make perfectly browned bread is welcome, and it might seem convenient to connect the device to the Internet so it can automatically order more bread. But in doing so, we open a pathway for unauthorized access to our credit cards, and enable others to pay close attention to the amount of toast we consume.

Granted, it's unclear how the information would be used, and each person considers the difference between paranoia and valid concern. It's unlikely anyone might care to be aware of your toast-consumption habits and use that information to harm you in any way. But it's more reasonable to consider that someone might find value in using your GPS unit to find out where you go, how often you go there, and where your car is at this very moment.

The suggestion that technology is too sophisticated to be exploited by anyone short of a genius simply is not true - recall the example of the roadside signs. And the more complex a system becomes, the more holes it has, and the easier it is to break into. The state-of-the-art computerized security systems in modern vehicles makes it much easier for them to be stolen. It takes a lot more equipment than a screwdriver to steal a car, but a lot less knowledge - such that anyone with a laptop computer and the ability to install a software program is qualified to be a car thief.

Manufacturers and enthusiasts like to project an air of confidence and assuage concerns of security, but they are generally unaware of the vulnerabilities of their products until someone exploits them. Often, the information that enables a person to hack a device is available on the Internet before the product is in the hands of its users. It takes longer to program and deliver a security update to software than it does to find a new hole that the upgrade doesn't patch.

There never has been made an unpickable padlock, and there never will be made an unhackable system.

Hidden Risks

We are reasonably capable of recognizing risk in the real world. We can tell when a walkway is unsafe, read the body language of a stranger. There's even an instinctual sense that something is not quire right, even if we can't quite figure out what it is. Millennia of evolution of cultural learning tell us when to be wary, and when to be at ease.

With technology that's merely a few months or decades old, we haven't quite worked it out. We choose to trust or distrust things we don't really understand, based on little knowledge and more gut-feel, often on things our senses cannot perceive. And returning to the opening narratives about GPS, we may turn away from the perceptions and knowledge we once relied on to keep us safe. We may even act contrary to them, placing more faith on gadgets than our own senses and judgment.

There is considerable danger in false confidence, and a sense of betrayal and embarrassment when the gadgets in which we choose to place our trust fail us. Or worse, when they are used against us - the information we unconsciously provide to others is used for their own purposes rather than the ones we intended.

We feel threatened and oppressed when our government uses technology to track our movements, when our employers use the RFID tag in our badge to keep tabs on everything we do. It's worse when we discover this has been done, for long periods of time, by many organizations, observing many phenomena.

But ultimately, the purpose of this book is not to terrorize the public or to scare people away from technology. It has too many benefits to simply abandon, and we're largely committed to it already. But rather, to enable consumers to understand the vulnerabilities and potential abuses of their technology, and make informed choices when they buy and use gadgets.