Features

High-tech threats?

National | Legislators try to ban dialing and driving, the CIA asks for help with hackers, and Visa pushes "smart cards"

Issue: "Schundler's bliss," July 7, 2001

Driven to distraction
Cell phone use in cars may go the way of smoking in public. New York became the first state to outlaw the use of hand-held cell phones while driving, and 39 other states have proposed similar bans. Parts of crowded New York City areas-Brooklyn, plus Westchester, Nassau, and Suffolk counties-have already passed measures outlawing the use of hand-held phones while driving. Such proposals have broad public support, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. A May poll by ABC News showed 7 out of 10 Americans said driving and dialing don't mix. But do cell phones really cause accidents? The evidence isn't conclusive. A 1997 New England Journal of Medicine study suggested that talking on the phone while driving increases the chances of accidents fourfold, a figure that's comparable to drunk driving. Disputing that was a AAA-funded study by the University of North Carolina which showed driver distraction was a factor in 8 percent of 32,303 traffic accidents analyzed from 1995 to 1999. Only 1.5 percent of the drivers were using cell phones. The Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association has launched a campaign with the slogan, "Safety: Your Most Important Call." Public-service announcements urge drivers to use their phones safely, and not to allow them to become a distraction. "We do feel that they are getting a bad rap," said Dee Yanhoskie, manager of the association's wireless education program. "In 1905, windshield wipers were thought to be hypnotizing to the driver, and just think what a safety device they are. In 1930, they tried to take the radio out of the car because they thought it was disturbing to the peace and distracting." Nevertheless, some legislators want a national ban. U.S. Sen. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) and U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) introduced such a proposal last month. Hacked off
Today's computer hackers are too fast for even the CIA. A top agency official told Congress that cyber-saboteurs develop new tools and techniques faster than the CIA can catch them. Even with more intelligence efforts and better technology, this chase continues. Often, "we end up detecting it after it's happened," Lawrence K. Gershwin, the CIA's top adviser on science and technology issues, told the House-Senate Joint Economic Committee. "I don't feel very good about our ability to anticipate." Right now, he said, hackers aren't too big a risk. They don't have the skills or even the motive to do something truly nasty, like shutting down a stock market or a phone network. Run-of-the-mill terrorists cannot be sure high-tech attacks will always succeed, so they stick to their usual business of hijacking, kidnapping, and car-bombing. "Terrorists really like to make sure that what they do works," Mr. Gershwin said. He said America's biggest risk for the next five to 10 years is treachery from foreign governments. Part of the government's problem is that officials use commercial lines (Internet, telephone, and otherwise) to make connections, and those could be compromised. Spies could create an electronic back door to set up an attack. Mr. Gershwin wants more cooperation on security matters between the private sector and the CIA or other agencies. But the high-tech industry likes its privacy and is often uneasy about supplying sensitive information to the government. Meanwhile, the Feds aren't always eager to share, either. Government programs like the federal Information Sharing Analysis Centers and the FBI's InfraGard program already exist, but they are in their infancy. The cat-and-mouse game with hackers likely will never end. Any computer system has vulnerabilities and somebody will want to exploit them. Expensive novelty?
Smart cards are a big hit in Europe and parts of Asia and Latin America, but few Americans are interested in this sort of plastic money. But Visa plans a promotional campaign with U.S. retailer Target to win over shoppers. The company will distribute millions of wallet-size electronic payment cards with embedded microchips by October 2002. Target will offer consumers free card readers that they can hook up to their home computers. Customers will be able to track their purchases and collect bonus points and special offers for using the system. A smart card works with a computer chip instead of the usual magnetic strip. It can store more information that a cardholder can see by buying a special reader. Supporters say smart cards help customer tracking, provide additional identification, and boost fraud prevention, benefits that critics say aren't worth billions in expensive upgrades. Typically, smart cards are often used like regular credit cards as a form of revolving debt. Overseas, people who frequently cross borders like smart cards because they don't have to keep several countries' currency on hand; in the United States, this isn't much of a concern. Target plans to put card readers in its stores, a move that other retailers so far have been reluctant to do. The popularity of credit and debit cards has made the smart card an unwanted extra for many Americans. First USA, FleetBoston, and Providian already issue the "Smart Visa" to a relative handful of users. American Express' Blue card is probably the most well-known program. Eventually, many in the credit-card industry would like to convert all users to smart cards and eliminate the traditional magnetic strip altogether. Lots of petty cash transactions carried out today with paper and coin would be done with the card, meaning more fees for the banks and processors. Unless it finds enough uses, however, the American smart card could die a slow death as an expensive novelty.

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