31 May 2001
More toys, more danger
Personal digital assistants (PDAs), those handy little electronic organizers, are showing up everywhere, from students' backpacks to the coat pockets of with-it spies.
Robert Hanssen, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) complaint presented at his arraignment, used one to help him carry more than 6,000 pages of documents out of FBI headquarters for delivery to his Russian handlers. At one point, irritated with trudging through muddy woods to deliver material to a dead drop, he asked his contacts to buy him a PDA with wireless capability so he could beam the files to them. They declined, and soon afterward the FBI apprehended Hanssen after he hid documents in a Virginia park for later retrieval by the Russians. In the spy business — as everywhere else, evidently — the value of some perks depends on which side of the transaction you're on.
"Something big is happening," the Motorola Web site proclaims. "Houses are talking to computers. Magazines are talking to wireless phones. Cars are talking to the Internet. It's already begun. . . . We are entering the era in which things don't just think but share what they know with each other."
Indeed we are, and whether all that extra chatter is a good thing remains to be decided. Telephone cloning has been a big and growing problem for years, and there are now viruses designed to specifically attack Web-enabled telephones. It won't be long before PDAs and two-way pagers come under similar attack.
Every remote device represents yet another potential security breach, and attackers don't have to be especially sophisticated. A Federal Reserve governor inadvertently left his PDA in a taxicab a few months ago, and in the hands of the wrong person that's a first-class ticket to ride; fortunately, as far as anyone knows, it was returned to its rightful owner without incident. And that's the rub: Misfits United might boast about successfully defacing a Web site, but somebody who's figured out how to divert a penny of every credit-card transaction to an offshore bank will probably keep mum. Not hearing about problems doesn't mean you haven't any; it might mean your security is truly awful.