Unsettling Thoughts about Reality, Virtual Reality, and "the Digital Force"

Remember the original Star Wars scene where Obi-Wan Kenobi, Luke Skywalker, CP3O and R2D2 are entering the town of Mos Eisley, on the planet Tatooine. They're stopped by a suspicious stormtrooper but Obiwan uses his Jedi powers to cloud the man's mind: Obi-Wan: "These are not the droids you're looking for." Trooper: "These are not the droids we're looking for."

Now, imagine that, instead of "the force" permeating the universe of Star Wars, instead we use, to the same end, the digital and automated reality our culture is currently constructing for itself. At the Black Hat Security Briefings conference in Las Vegas recently, Lukas Grunwald, a German information security consultant recently reported on one way he thinks he can use this "digital force" to cloud retailers' minds.

Lukas Grunwald says that he has created software that will let him enter a store and, using a PDA, copy product identification information from the RFID tags on a number of products. Then, as an example, he can also use his PDA to take the product information from the tag on a $3 carton of milk and feed it into the RFID tag on a $15 bottle of luxury shampoo. In the currently hypothetical fully-automated supermarket that is probably in our near future, he trundles his cart through a checkout lane where the contents are totaled up and walks away with the luxury shampoo for only $3. Consider that Lukas is in the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi, the automated checkout counter is in the role of the stormtrooper, and Lukas' PDA is the tool with which he manipulates "the digital force." (A more chaotic version of manipulating the digital force with regard to RFID which I read about on an anarchist website is to release, in a large store, cockroaches with fake product RFID tags glued to their carapaces.)

Read the script below.

Grunwald has released his software, for free, to prove his point.

What a magical time it was in 1977 when Star Wars transformed science fiction entertainment forever. Little did we know that we were already engaged in building our own version of "the force." Every year and now it seems every month I learn of a new technology twist that adds to the invisible-to-the-eye sea of digital information that flows around us and creates the environment we interact with.

"Really?" you say. "The force?" and I say, "Yes, the digital force." It's nearly everywhere and it will be soon. It's certainly in your office, and at the ATM machine, and in jet fighters, and you can even tap into it anywhere inside the city limits of Grand Haven Michigan now.

And it's available anywhere you can get a cell phone signal, like on many interstate highways. I was recently on a long trip in Clifford, my big red truck, through Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee, with my son driving at 70+ miles per hour. For most of the trip I was able to work as though I were in my office - using my Dell Inspiron 8500 which was getting power from Clifford and dialed up to the Internet through my Treo 600 converged device, catching Sprint signals nearly constantly. If that's not tapping into a digital force then I don't know what is.

From the script of "A New Hope," "Star Wars" Episode IV - a scene each of us knows almost by heart:

The speeder is stopped on a crowded street by several combat-hardened stormtroopers who look over the two robots. A stormtrooper questions Luke.

Trooper: How long have you had these droids?

Luke: About three or four seasons.

Obi-Wan: They're for sale if you want them.

Trooper: Let me see your identification.

Luke becomes very nervous as he fumbles to find his ID while Obi-Wan speaks to the stormtrooper in a very controlled voice.

Obi-Wan: You don't need to see his identification.

Trooper: We don't need to see his identification.

Obi-Wan: These are not the droids your looking for.

Trooper: These are not the droids we're looking for.

Obi-Wan: He can go about his business.

Trooper: You can go about your business.

Obi-Wan: (to Luke) Move along.

Trooper: Move along. Move along.

- George Lucas, 1976

It's fun to think of college and university IT staffers as higher education's version of the Jedi Knights, training long and hard in the installation and use of the digital force, and using their skills to fight the evils of spammers, hackers, and identity thieves. Especially those in the employ of the evil empire. (D'es that put attorney general John Ashcroft in the role of Darth Vader and make librarians sort of a specialized group of Jedi?)

Okay, this analogy is quite stretch. But it's an entertaining one. Suspend your disbelief for a moment and think about the parallels in the following recent news items, some of which we've shared in "IT Trends":

  • Libraries are RFID tagging their entire inventories
  • Even the essay portions of standardized exams are soon going to be graded by computers
  • Electronic voting machines are being hastily implemented, even in Florida, and votes are being lost already
  • Security technology at airports may soon include machines that virtually strip the clothing off passengers
  • Police can use a mini version of EMP to remotely turn off criminals' cars

In some sense, there's nothing new in all of this. Thieves have been switching labels on pallets or changing bar codes on expensive products, or the equivalent, throughout history. Cheaters always find a way that works, at least for a while. What's truly different is that so much of the fraudulent manipulation now takes place in a milieu that cannot be seen by the human eye. To me, when that happens we're using"the digital force," and I definitely want to remain on the side of the Jedi.

May the (digital) force be with you.

* Episode IV
George Lucas
Revised Fourth Draft
January 15, 1976

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