Shoplifters of the world unite
Let’s be charitable, then. As magstripe took off at the end of the 1970s, no one knew how easy it was to read and duplicate information from magnetic tape ... except perhaps for data security experts, banks, credit agencies, data processing staff, retailers, radio station engineers, recording artists, employees at Philips and Sony, Led Zeppelin bootleggers, Robert Fripp, Bow Wow Wow and every teenager in the world with two tape decks.
The other problem with magstripe, usability, will be familiar to most people who have ever had to deal with electronically locked doors between the early days of numeric keypads to the widespread adoption of RFID around ten years ago.
I have already vented my spleen about RFID door entry systems in an earlier column, but the swipe-card entry systems that preceded them were both unreliable and hilarious in equal measure. This was because you were never quite sure whether the door would open on the first swipe or the seventeenth.
This, then, would force you to attempt a variety of increasingly embellished ways of swiping your card through the slot. Turn the card over and swipe again. Swipe upwards. Swipe upwards and then downwards. Swipe quickly. Swipe slowly. Jiggle the card up and down a bit. Swipe over and over again, shouting the Joliet-standard verbal password: “Open the fucking door, you bastard.”
You needed to develop a very particular swipe technique, different for every card and every reader, to persuade the bastard thing to work. I knew one guy who used to employ an elaborate pre-swipe routine involving breathing on the card (this works for uncooperative Zippo lighters, by the way), rattling the door a bit to give it fair warning that you want it to open, then enacting a kata sequence from Enter The Dragon before leaping into the air and swiping the card through the slot as he descended.
The worst swipe-card entry system I ever encountered was the one at the bomb-proof reinforced door of the PC Magazine testing labs. Not even the entire Bruce Lee back catalogue would persuade its magstripe reader to open that fucking door, much to the amazement – well, amusement – of my colleagues. Then I noticed there was a 2mm gap between the door and the frame, and I found that I could push my card through the gap to release the Yale-type lock they had foolishly installed on the other side.
All this nonsense has been superseded by RFID, albeit with the caveat that you need to be careful about which cards you hold near the touch-reader devices. One of my clients’ premises requires me to carry an entry card for all its external and internal doors, while also acting as a payment card for purchases made at the staff canteen. I am never sure whether, on those occasions when it bleeps red and refuses to let me enter or leave the building, I am actually being charged for an egg mayonnaise sandwich and a mini pack of sour cream Pringles.
For North Americans who are only now being forced to abandon magstripe at the tills, it seems likely that chip-and-pin will represent the briefest of “new” financial authentication systems to deal with. There will probably be a short interlude of chip-and-pin curiosity before the nerdy explosion of smartphone payment spreads its love from Europe back across the Atlantic to where it was originally devised.
Then, once the last remaining outback of the western world (the USA) has caught up and all our financial transactions are properly hooked up to big data trawlers, we can look forward to an appropriately dystopian future, as every purchase, Retweet, Share and Like will be tracked, evaluated and applied to our credit rating. The Chinese are doing it now, so I reckon your government will be next – assuming it isn’t already.
In the future, we will need new techniques for accessing the data of our own lives, and this time will require more than a simple swipe to open the door. Here’s a Chinese training video that may help:
Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling IT journalism, editorial training and digital publishing. He is trialling different methods of paying for goods by smartphone and has encountered one significant difficulty. When one credit card is refused, it’s quick and easy to whip out another, but if this happens on a smartphone, it is mandatory to put up with a queue of harrumphing customers behind you as you fiddle with an app to change the account you want to pay from.