Zombie Nets

One of my favorite hacks last year was Samy Kamkar‘s RaspPi modification SkyJack which autonomously seeks out, hacks, and wirelessly take control over other drones within wireless distance. This single project points the way to a host of highly hackable projects and systems that we take granted because they’re so much a part of our daily lives.

Wirelessly managed systems are all around us and the zombie paradigm that Kamkar leverages with a toy could be the beginning of an entirely new industry. The ability to seamlessly time slice basic automated utility cannot be too far off and each embedded antenna in these ubiquitous automated systems is a door to control.

iRobot’s Wall Mounted Wireless Controller

Yesterday, while waltzing through the National Botanic Gardens with the family I watched a couple drop a GoPro2 on the ground in order to get a selfie in front of a topiary.  At first, the there did not seem to be anything special about this tiny little event. The guy used his iPhone to take the shot and the retrieved his camera.

However, at the time, I just happened to be searching for a wi-fi signal on my phone. Tess and Aral had wondered around a corner and I could not find them by peering through the jungle of growth in the main pavilion. I was hoping to hitch a ride on an open network for a minute so I could send off a quick iMessage to Tess. My reception in that Faraday cage of a building was sub-optimal and Verizon had 1x-ed me once more.

Thus it was that I discovered, somewhere within the building, were at least three other GoPro video cameras. All four appeared to have be operating their default hotspot with open settings. Honestly, I no interest in taking control of your cameras, but when I selected the one with the best signal it wasn’t difficult.

Seeing the inside of some strangers backpack got me to thinking about this. Yes, I believe that we’re just at the beginning of something here. But the ease with which consumer electronics can be co-opted is not necessarily a vulnerability. Rather, what if these light-weight, cheap, mass marketed devices became an integrated part of the IoT?

Imagine, for the moment, that the National Botanical Gardens were just a tiny cross section of what were available utilities anywhere. What is important about the portable lenses and robot vacuums and delivery drones of the world, even today, has necessarily less to do with the object itself and quite a bit more to do with what those things can do. Yet the rests physically with the object.

That is a fault in the economy as it changes, in my opinion. I could have taken picture after picture of the inside of some one’s backpack (and felt a certain sense of malicious glee as I filled up his memory card), but only if I had snatched the camera and made a mad dash for the metro would anyone care.

I believe that attitudes are changing, at least in small increments, already. The recent hubbub over the NSA spying on Americans (and everyone else), often by watching metadata , points at this. Regardless of whether you believe it is right, wrong, or are simply indifferent to the whole mess, I’d wager that you feel more attached the the SIM card in your mobile than you do to the device in your pocket. What if your address, indelibly etched on that card, were the thing of value, that unique mote of information that identifies you as a separate and independent entity, were the thing that had some sort of Constitutional protection?

The way I see it, trying to protect or guarantee or monitor or even manage information passing over a network is a lot like trying to do the same within an airspace between someone’s mouth and another’s ears. And ultimately, that is why the First Amendment was put in place. To ensure that no one tried to tell you or I, what to say or how to say it. There is no filter, at least here in the US, that needs to be considered before speak your peace. The air space is open.

By attempting to control something similar between networked peers, we’re creating opportunities that will invariably result in Zombie nets. We’re misplaced the value in any exchange of information which occurs online.

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