on an unfortunate tension

It’s frustrating when you’re not allowed to use electronic devices during the first and last fifteen minutes of a flight – sometimes much longer. I rather resent having to carry paper reading material, or to stare at the wall in those periods. On today’s flight, they even told us to switch off e-book readers.

E-book readers! Don’t these people realise that the whole point of epaper is that you don’t turn it off: it consumes a minimal amount of power, so that the Kindle can survive a month on a single charge. It has no ‘off’ switch per se, its slide switch simply invoking the “screen saver” mode. This doesn’t change the power consumption by much: it just replaces the on-screen text with pictures, and disables the push buttons.

And the answer is that of course they don’t know this stuff. Why would they? Indeed, it would be absurd to expect a busy cabin attendant to be able to distinguish, say, an ebook reader from a tablet device. If we accept for a moment the shaky premise that electronic devices might interfere with flight navigation systems, then we must accept that the airlines need to ensure that as many as possible of these are swiched off – even those with no off switch to speak of, whose electromagnetic emissions would be difficult to detect at a distance of millimetres.

Of course, this is a safety argument, but much the same applies to security. Even the best of us would struggle to look at a device, look at an interface, and decide whether it is trustworthy. This, it seems to me, is a profound problem. I’m sure evolutionary psychologists could tell us in some detail about the kind of risks we are adapted to evaluate. Although we augment those talents through nurture and education, cyber threats look different every day. Children who have grown up in a digital age will have developed much keener senses for evaluating cyber-goodness than those coming to these things later in life, but we should not delude ourselves into thinking this is purely a generational thing.

People have studied the development of trust, at some length. Although the clues for trusting people seem to be quite well established, we seem to be all over the place in deciding whether to trust an electronic interface – and will tend to do so on the basis of scant evidence. (insert citations here). That doesn’t really bode well for trying to improve the situation. In many ways, the air stewardess’s cautionary approach has much to commend it, but the adoption of computing technology always seems to have been led by a ‘try it and see’ curiosity, and we destroy that at out peril.

3 thoughts on “on an unfortunate tension

  1. Consider what protocols for cooperative devices could offer in the instance of air travel: the plane’s passenger cabin might tell standards-compliant devices (mobile phones, tablets, Nintendo 3DS games) to turn off their radio transmitters for the duration of the flight, but retain other functionality. To some extent, the capability and protocols exist already in embryonic form; mobile phones know to turn down their transmitter power (and save their battery!) when signal conditions are good; similarly, the network allows calls to emergency services to be made from any phone even if the SIM card is missing or the phone is locked or the phone’s owner hasn’t paid his phone bill. The devices cooperate with the network to save battery power, reduce unnecessary RF exposure for health effects, and to get help in emergencies. It is not much to imagine an airborne protocol such as this, respected by all manufacturers just as DVD players pay attention to region codes, perhaps with an additional feature to mute the phone’s ringer in church, too. The phone still works in an emergency; it’s just location-aware and polite, even if the owner forgets.

    Contrast this with the non-cooperative, hostile interaction between military radars and jamming pods, or if you wish, between movie theatre owners and mobile phone cameras. Some theatres have installed bright infra-red illumination behind or reflecting off their movie screens, to wash out the picture of illicit video cameras trying to pirate new movies, by taking advantage of the IR sensitivity of digital camera sensors and the insensitivity of human vision.

    When we start treating these electronic extensions of our bodies and minds (Google, anyone?) to be a permanent part of the system and the environment, not just an optional nuisance that can be turned off or left at home, we will begin to solve problems in a more efficient way. Requiring flight crews to repeat the same speech about electronic devices sixty thousand times every day is not it.

  2. I’m sure that such a signalling regime has its place.

    But surely the problem is with the non-compliant devices (and their owners) – always assuming, again, that electrical interference in commercial avionics is actually a problem. I’m not sure how you would incentivize a global standard: there’s little in it for the vendors. Moreover, I don’t think you could realistically ensure that all airport security checkpoints could weed out the rogue devices, any more than the cabin crew can. Economically, I’m not sure it’s a problem anyone wants to solve.

    The problem of recognition is going to become a bigger and bigger one, though. Having more and more devices able securely to report their identity – in a privacy-sensitive way – is definitely a desirable thing. Having 802.11 as the bearer for that seems overwhelmingly likely to me.

  3. Of the channels presently available—802.11, Bluetooth, IR, acoustic or HDSPA—I agree 802.11 has the right combination of features: power enough to communicate with a large space without requiring an unreasonably large number of transceivers in the venue, non-line-of-sight so that devices in pockets and bags and participate, and fairly low power requirements. What is missing is a protocol and an incentive for manufacturers to follow it. Man pages for Ethernet cards on FreeBSD or Linux are full of complaints from device driver writers about corner-cutting hardware manufacturers, incompletely or incorrectly implement standard interfaces and protocols, claimed features of the hardware that do not work, and firmware updates without corresponding version number changes. The new protocol must be implemented as high in the OSI model as possible, because otherwise we can’t depend on all the hardware manufacturers writing the functionality in their firmware. It either has to be done at the PHY level (by the two or three suppliers who actually make the radios everyone else uses) or at the device driver level. In between, there is opportunity for manufacturers to cheat.