Calling London, on Cells and Online

Opinion: Technology brings the global community closer, but let's stay realistic about personal security risks.

Londons mobile phone network doesnt usually break down at 2 a.m. You have to blame the terror bombs. That and, of course, our need to rely on codecs.

Our family relies on a bulletin board. I heartily recommend for this sort of thing. Its free, even my mother can use it, and its virtually immune to spam.

Everybody gets the same URL, and everybody sticks up their daily news. The only thing I cant talk the operator into doing is making it easier for phone users to access it.

When the bombs went off, I posted a reassuring little message saying where all the London members of the family were. It didnt stop my mother phoning, to make sure. "But I put a bulletin up saying were all OK."

She made it clear that she needed the reassurance of the sound of our voices. Actually, she came within a whisker of saying: "Its not right, using these typewritten message systems, and we should use the phone as God intended us to."

She wasnt the only one.

I suspect that if Americans and Australians had a better sense of statistics, it wouldnt have been a problem, but unfortunately, humans really have trouble with numbers much higher than 200.

And so I was woken at stupid-oclock the day after the attacks, by friends from Vancouver and San Francisco, who had finally gotten home and turned on the television.

"Oh my God! I wonder if Guy is OK!" And when they couldnt get through, naturally, they assumed my house was rubble.

But the reason they couldnt get through was that there are 50,000 Australians in London at any moment, each with half a dozen relatives, and probably three times as many Americans, each with half a dozen relatives; and maybe half the population of Western Canada has a British cousin or a friend with one.

The phone network went solid until about 5 a.m., which is when the mobile started ringing.

/zimages/2/28571.gifClick here to read more about how the Flickr photo service flooded with photos after the attacks in London.

Statistics: Every three days in the U.K., a woman dies at the hands of a jealous ex. Do Americans phone their British friends every three days, to see if one of them has been killed, or the other has committed the deed?

Very roughly, the number of people in London is of the same order of magnitude as the number of people who spend a pound to buy a lottery ticket in this country. Do you phone me every Wednesday or Saturday to see if Ive become unspeakably rich?

Why not? The risk is very similar!

Two of my friends died last week. One took an overdose (family worries), and the other was just found dead on the floor of his kitchen when his wife came home.

Neither was alive when the bombs went off. Actually, the risk that one of your friends will die of natural causes is pretty high, any day of the week, if you include traffic accidents as "natural causes."

The result is that people get paranoid about security risks that are totally implausible, and blithely ignore hazards that could destroy their businesses at the drop of a hat.

It is as certain as certain can make it that in the next month, Ill have to write about two "Bluetooth exploits" which will propel some small-town security consultant into the headlines.

I guarantee, also, that some seminar will generate news stories, which will be syndicated around the world, about how many Wi-Fi networks are unprotected, and how easy it is to park in the company lot and snoop.

Yet, the reality is that if someone wants to get information out of your company, your only protection is to destroy all records. If someone knows something, they will tell someone; that someone will tell someone else.

The only hope of keeping it secret is that the information becomes too boring to bother re-telling. But as recent Israeli industrial espionage scandals have shown, targeted snooping will work, and does work.

No security system is better than the key; and if someone gives away the key, the system becomes insecure.

If you want your wireless network to be truly secure, even iris scans to verify the identity of people attaching wont do.

If its that important, the evil people will simply kidnap someone whose iris works, and make them do the snooping, exactly the way bank robbers, once a week somewhere in the world, kidnap a bank employees wife and tell the employee to "behave normally, and she wont get hurt."

Still, theres an upside. I got a lot of calls from old friends I hadnt heard from for literally years... and if only it hadnt been in the small hours of the morning, Id have been really glad to chat.

Contributing columnist Guy Kewney has been irritating the complacent in high tech since 1974. Previously with PC Mag UK and ZDNet UK, Guy helped found InfoWorld, Personal Computer World, MicroScope, PC Dealer, AFAICS Research and NewsWireless. And he only commits one blog—forgiveable, surely? He can be reached at

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