skidelsky167_Andriy Onufriyenko Getty Images_ world Andriy Onufriyenko via Getty Images

Fail-Safe Failures

So much of our lives nowadays are determined by the smooth functioning of technologies of which we know little. Even if the risk of a global breakdown remains remote, we will increasingly find ourselves helpless and panic-stricken in the face of even mild upsets to “normal” life.

LONDON – The other day, my wife and I were leaving our apartment building. I pressed the button which automatically opens and shuts the door. Nothing happened. We could not leave the building, except perhaps by jumping through a window. Eventually, the concierge, who happened to be outside, managed to open the door manually. He explained that there had been a power cut. The fail-safe system, which also worked electronically, had failed as well. The power cut lasted two hours.

I thought of all the doors in London and elsewhere which now open and shut automatically: train doors, automobile doors, elevator doors, supermarket doors (not yet, thank goodness, aircraft doors). At one time, all these doors were opened and shut by hand. The same was true of locking and unlocking. Today my key fob causes my car doors to lock and unlock automatically. I googled to find out why: “Modern key fobs work through RFID, an intelligent barcode system that uses electromagnetic fields to identify and track data on ‘tags’ that contain stored information. The information then passes through radio waves.”

And apparently my key has become a source of risk: “If a digital key fob gets hacked or electronically duplicated, the cybercriminal who did it can steal your car! And now researchers have discovered ‘key cloning’ is not only possible, but it’s a serious threat.”

We hope you're enjoying Project Syndicate.

To continue reading and receive unfettered access to all content, subscribe now.



Unlock additional commentaries for FREE by registering.