Personal Space

December 2005


Every day, I see dozens of people on the street, or on the bus, plugged into their iPods. It occurred to me to wonder about all the stuff they're listening to... How sure are you that the music you used to listen to from a record or from a CD is the same music as on your iPod?

You see them everywhere: people with ear plugs in both ears. The ear plugs are usually connected to something like an iPod. For the non-technical reader: an iPod is a product from Apple Computer that is a portable audio player. Many other manufacturers make similar devices and market them under all kinds of brand names, but for simplicity, I'm going to lump them all together and refer to anything that does this task as an iPod. Most people collect their preferred audio files on their computer and then download them to their iPod. You can grab radio programs, CDs, or other audio "feeds" that are typically called "podcasts." They all end up in your iPod as small audio files (usually mp3's or Vorbis oog's).

It occurred to me today that it would be relatively simple for some malicious person to infect your computer with a virus or worm that would add subliminal content to the audio you transferred from your computer to your iPod. In this way, while you were listening to your music/comedian/news on your iPod, you might very well be getting a substantial dose of subliminal programming, too.

What you'd set such a virus to program into people could be sold to the highest bidder: have you found yourself unnaturally craving a Coke lately? Have your feet taken you regularly into any new fast food joints that you had formerly given a miss? Do you feel any strange political affinities creeping over you that seem difficult to reconcile with the leanings of your recent past? Have you only recently found God in a hitherto unaccustomed resting place -- and did they want money for back rent?

The possibilities are endless. They are also frightening. I know all about how to get and listen to audio files, but I wouldn't have a clue about how to detect whether there was some sinister payload packaged with them. I understand the technology sufficiently to know that it would be child's play for anybody who really knew what they were doing to accomplish. I'm not a hacker, and I don't write malicious code (viruses and worms), but again, I know just enough to know that it wouldn't exactly be rocket science to make such a program result in this process.

My only consolation in the midst of my paranoia is that some geek somewhere would blow the whistle on something like this. They'd be looking at their music files and calculating how big they ought to be (or something) and it wouldn't add up right and they'd figure out why. If I were a real wacko loony conspiracy theorist, I'd decide that Microsoft and the NSA were doing this as a joint project for their own nefarious purposes: Bill, George, and the American Way! But then, I've already said that I have no reason to suspect that anybody is doing this. Yet.

We rely on technology with so much faith. In some ways, we have less faith in technology than we used to have, but in other ways our faith is still unquestioning. Back before we had pollution or globalization we believed that progress was much more of an unalloyed blessing. But as technology becomes more and more a part of daily life, we rely on it more and more implicitly -- we question it less and less. Generally speaking, what we fail to question bites us in the neck someday. We need to look at every technological innovation with a more critical eye, and we need to remain aware of the stealthy inroads that technology makes possible into our innermost personal space.

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