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Winkler: Nike + iPod 'vulnerability' blown out of proportion

By Ira Winkler
December 7, 2006 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - When CNN started covering the "vulnerability" of Nike + iPod Sport Kits, I knew it was a slow news day. To summarize the situation quickly, Nike began producing shoes that can hold a device that assists in tracking running workouts. A receiver plugs into an iPod, which records the workout. You can then download the workout to your computer and a supporting Web site.

The root problem is that other devices can pick up the transmitter within approximately 60 feet. According to the student researchers at University of Washington, people can use the devices as surveillance tools. They even put together a demonstration system for the news media. In their demos, they showed a woman walking around campus and computers in various sites able to pick up the woman's location and theoretically track the woman. According to the researchers, the implications are dire.

I should first acknowledge that there is a vulnerability involved with this technology. However, all vulnerabilities have to be put into perspective with the risk that they create. In this case, any "additional" risk created by the Nike+ devices is minimal.

First, you have to acknowledge that there are many ways to track an individual. For example, cell phones can be tracked, and the effective distance of monitoring a cell phone is much more than 60 feet. Likewise, one thing that enhances the ability to track cell phones is Bluetooth technology, which is also trackable and on many more devices. Then there are all of the radio frequency identification devices that can be picked up when you go by an RFID transceiver. There are many ways that we allow ourselves to be tracked, and the new Nike+ is the least of the concerns.

There are also many similar devices that runners use to track their workouts and register themselves for races. People who participate in organized running events often wear devices that allow race organizers to know when people begin and finish, and sometimes when they pass race mile markers. The devices are small and frequently not removed from shoes afterwards. It might be a different technology, but just like the researchers developed receivers for the specific Nike technology, they could just as easily have created it for any of the other devices specifically designed for tracking runners.

Then think about the use of the technology. The researchers claim that Nike encourages people to leave the devices on, implying that consumers then leave themselves vulnerable and that Nike is aware of this issue. In the first place, people who have expensive running shoes like the Nike+ tend to reserve those shoes for running. They use other shoes for just about all other purposes. So, the "vulnerable" people are usually only vulnerable for that small time where they are actually out running. Therefore, the risk is minimal.



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