Wednesday 26 May 2010

Scientist Infected With Computer Virus (Except He's Not)

Oh good grief, somebody's at it again.  The t'interweb seems to be abuzz at the moment with news of Dr Mark Gasson of the University of Reading's Systems Engineering department, who from a first glance at the headlines has infected himself with a computer virus.

Which is, of course, hyperbole, misconstrued and misleading twiffle of the worst kind.  Let's be clear about this, he's not got a computer virus.

What he's done is infect an Radio Frequency ID (RFID) chip with a computer virus.  These tiny little chips are used all over the place, from tagging pets to tracking goods in shops, and they're very useful.  You could, for example, keep one in your wallet and program the lights in your house to turn on when you enter a room.  Doesn't have to be your wallet, of course, it could be your pocket, in the brim of your hat, hell, you could be really experimental and inject it under your skin if you wanted.  It makes no difference.

And that's what this guy has done, and he's not the first:  Professor Kevin Warwick (also of the University of Reading) did exactly that back in 1998.  The difference here is that instead of a simple tracking program Dr Gasson has installed a virus on the chip, which like any virus can potentially spread to any computer that talks to it.

That's not new either, remote exploits like this have been known about for years.  So what's the news?  Well, I suppose it's a way to show your average computer user just how insecure many systems are, that it's possible to spread computer viruses by simply walking around with an RFID chip in your pocket (or arm), but the people who would benefit from this information are also the ones who will take one look at a screaming headline about a scientist getting a computer virus and add it to their "science is bad" list, probably somewhere in between cloning (clones are by definition evil versions of us) and the LHC (going to destroy the world).

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