Innocent iPod a sucker for pernicious practices

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 15 August, 2005, 12:00am

Tech is so treacherous. Outwardly innocent devices and discoveries can so easily be put to evil purposes.

Just look at Marie Curie's dubious baby, uranium: handy both for cancer therapy and nuclear bombs but perhaps better suited for the latter. This century, that once mundane tool, the box cutter, took on a sinister connotation.

Even that friendly blob of plastic we call the mobile phone can be sinister when in the hands of the English, who forget that it is meant for phone calls and, in snuff film spirit, use it to photograph individuals they have thumped or set on fire (it's called happy slapping).

Now even that cute gizmo, the iPod, has moved to the dark side, becoming involved in a practice called podslurping. It sounds kinky but means a clean, silent hi-tech way of stealing information - heaps, truckloads, oodles of information. All you need is the following: the world's most overexposed dinky gadget for playing music, a hard drive to leech from and a permissive value system. Or, even better, no values at all.

You plug your multi-gigabyte portable storage device into the target and then simply suck up every file you like, which is theft because these days information amounts to so much more than bits. It is the new hot commodity, which we trade like oil and silver.

Whether iPod-driven information snatching deserves to be seen as a threat to civilisation is doubtful, however, judging by the scorn Abe Usher has attracted. Abe who?

Mr Usher is the founder and head of United States security consultancy, Sharp Ideas, which is responsible for slurp.exe: a 'crippleware' theft program that copies no more than 200 files. He also broke the news about slurping, on the back of a Gartner report that ran last year.

In his story he said that an unauthorised visitor could show up after office hours disguised as a cleaner, armed with an iPod. No one would think this weird because, to distract themselves from the drudgery of tackling dust mites and microbes, cleaners often carry such gadgets.

A cleaner could waft from computer to computer and suck out the Microsoft Office files from each system. In an hour he might have 20,000 files from more than 12 workstations. He could then go home, upload the files from his iPod to his PC, and use a desktop search program to unearth corporate secrets - in theory.

'Maybe your next article should cover how we should consider printers a 'threat' to information security,' one cynic wrote. Another said: 'Oh, the horror! This was also true in 1980, when the modern floppy disk was invented. It may be true that more valuable data is stored now, but that has nothing to do with the iPod, and certainly nothing to do with your silly little program.'

I thought the same. I thought this was just another scare story of the kind I like to peddle when my life lacks meaning or the news is slow. Remember how Y2K failed to send jets tumbling from the sky? Slurping could prove no more of a threat to society than sleeping.

But remember that iPods and their ilk can absorb a touch more info than a standard 1.4-megabyte floppy disk. Worse, the tech world has its fair share of sociopaths. The next voice in the Abe Usher thread asked for the full version of his crippleware, without explanation, just some bad grammar and the admission that he was 14. At that age, boys have no more morals than a wasp and are intent on wreaking as much mayhem as possible.

So, the next time you meet someone equipped with a funky portable MP3 player, think of and fear for your hard drive. Slurping is no longer just about sucking up soup.

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