Saturday January 28, 2006
I spend a lot of my time wondering: why are people so afraid of science, when it has given us so much? To my mind there are two answers: firstly, the everyday science that you learned at school is no longer enough to understand the world around you. Fifty years ago, a fairly well educated person could easily have a full understanding of how the technology they interacted with actually worked: you could explain a car, a wind-up record player, a fridge, or the old analogue telephone exchange network, for example, on the back of an envelope, or with the help of a science teacher, pretty quickly.
But that’s not true any more. Look around you. Do you really, fully understand your mobile phone? The braking system on your car? Where your breakfast came from? Or even the manufacturing process that produced this bit of newspaper? My guess is no. Any sufficiently advanced technology, as they say, is indistinguishable from magic, and these days, with the pace of new developments, that goes even for people who know a lot about science. And that’s spooky. We don’t like that, either intellectually, or in our gut.
But secondly, of course, and more infuriatingly for scientists, the decisions about technology, about how it is used – political decisions – tarnish the popular view of scientists. Genetic modification of organisms is interesting and useful in an uncountably huge number of theoretical or even practical situations. Mass rollout of GM crops, though, makes people nervous, for some good reasons, and it’s issues like this that make science seem sinister and remote. So here is a very unpleasant new example of how new technology throws up new problems. This week, I noticed a glaring flaw in the mobile phone networks that allows you to stalk people, and find their location to within 200 yards, any time you want, without their permission. You don’t have to be Einstein; there are websites all over the internet to do this.
Here is how it works. You register on the site, pay a few quid, type in the phone number of the person you want to track, and then the system sends them a text message. All you need to do is surreptitiously get access to your target’s mobile phone, without their knowledge, for just five minutes: long enough to receive that text message, reply with the word LOCATE, and delete two text messages that arrive immediately, warning them they are being tracked. You can stalk them for a couple of days, find out if they really are where they say they are, work out who they are with, perhaps find out if they’re having an affair, then delete them off the system. They will never be any the wiser.
I asked my girlfriend if I could, in principle, track her for a day, without telling her how: she agreed and I set the service up on her phone, in five minutes, while she was asleep. I have a map of her movements in front of me right now. It feels very wrong. And it required no technical knowledge, or “hacking”, whatsoever. That this is possible, and so easy, to my mind, is extremely sinister. I had a squabble with one of these companies on Radio 4 yesterday, and they seemed astonished at what I was saying. They promised that they would tighten up security, and think about getting better consent for tracking people’s location than one response to a text message. The notion that this technology could be misused in this way had not, apparently, occurred to them. It took me to point it out to them. Who the hell am I? Nobody. Do I work for a phone company? Do I work for the government?
In that moment, I can honestly say, I felt the fear that so many people feel with technology. I don’t fully understand how mobile phones work. But now I know that anybody can use them to track people, without their permission, I share that uneasy sense that everything is, somehow, out of control …
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