Books

'When Gadgets Betray Us' Betrays Readers with Fear and Few Answers

Robert Vamosi conducts a thorough enough survey of technological threat and danger lore, but he does little to help readers navigate the landscape, and tells them even less about meaningful actions they can take to mitigate risks.


Publisher: Basic
Author: Robert Vamosi
Price: $16.99
Format: Paperback
When Gadgets Betray Us: The Dark Side of Our Infatuation With New Technologies
Length: 240 pages
Publication date: 2013-02

I am typing this review on a Windows 8 notebook computer as squall lines stream into Seattle, alternating darkness and downpours with hints of sunlight. To track the storms, I just gave Weather.com permission to identify my precise location. On the map, a dot now appears exactly where I sit.

Author Robert Vamosi, progenitor of When Gadgets Betray Us, would not condone this activity. I however, want to see the rain echo over my home and telling Weather.com where I live is the price of that precision. Weather.com’s advertising people may find my location revelation good fodder for their targeted ad algorithm, but I seriously doubt the company, or anyone monitoring my WiFi network (which happens to be encrypted, BTW) would derive much value from knowledge about my storm tracking habits.

If, however, you are paranoid about people being out to get you in the digital world, Vamosi reminds you that paranoia is only an affliction if it isn’t real. And for Vamosi everyone should be paranoid about their trust in gadgets. Whether our GPS leads us astray or malicious hackers discover our garage door frequencies, it’s pretty clear, these things can be trusted.

Vamosi leaves few digital stones unturned when looking for reasons people should fear their technology. TV remotes to hack a hotel accounting systems, public WiFi to gain access to personal checking accounts after a debit transaction, Voice-over-IP (VoIP) calls recorded to facilitate insider trading. The book presents story after story after story of something that isn’t quit right about our electronic companions.

Although ostensibly written for a general business reader, When Gadgets Betray Us includes so many acronyms and technical details to make its point that the book may lose its intended audience. Individuals may have control over passwords and choices about where they connect to the Internet, but they have very little to say about the technology used by their cellular phone carrier and even less about the code burned into an erasable programmable read only memory, or EPROM chip. Perhaps the examples were considered to provide a kind of smorgasbord of fear so that each reader would discover at least one example that would drive them into a mental panic room.

When Gadgets Betray US asks that we consider our technological relationships, but in a world of increasing innovation velocity, can the average consumer of technology really be expected to keep up? Can we use our fragments of knowledge to shore up our security against the ruins of technological progress?

As I read through the technologies covered in this book, and the approaches to solutions to protect ourselves, I'm reminded of my policy work with political candidates during the cold war, where they were expected to understand nuclear deterrence strategies, deployment models, storage and testing options, not to mention various incarnations of the weapons themselves from single warhead to M.I.R.V.’s (Multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle).

When Gadgets Betray Us reads like a policy briefing book. The book presents a series of categorized vignettes designed to raise the consciousness of the reader and prod him or her into action. The actions one should take, however, remain rather elusive. Vamosi never really gets to how to fix errant GPS systems, he simply documents their shortcomings, and then describes the potential outcomes generated by those shortcomings.

Consumers of technology have always been under threat by ever more sophisticated inventions. During the industrial age people were maimed by machinery during their working hours, leading to the design of guards on machines to increase worker safety. Eventually, sophisticated robots completely replaced humans in many of the most hazardous of endeavors. Some would argue that movements toward efficiency and safety that lead to the replacement of humans incurs its own kind of societal risk. When Gadgets Betrays Us is silent on the implications of such solutions.

Any book with this many specifics risks becoming obsolete quickly, if not before its publication, as the number of threats compounds with every new social media system, the capture of data from a new sensor types or the mash-up of information constructed for the benefit of any individual user. Talking about copy machines and hotwiring cars does little to add this book’s relevance or credibility.

Perhaps Vamosi is right, and the only thing we can do is be vigilant, protect ourselves using whatever tools we have at our disposal, from encryption to private browsing windows to keeping security patches up-to-date. Of course, we can always go back to… well, not even smoke signals or cave painting would really avoid passing on personal information to anonymous passers-by—so the only alternative really is just to watch yourself, set the default setting to “secure” and leave all your data at work where your employer can worry about it (although that won't guarantee protection of your data) -- or just stop doing anything online.

If those simple messages really are the best answers to the problems Vamosi thinks he is solving, then he could have saved 221 pages of examples, references and index entries and just created a PDF infographic or a postcard. For the paranoid, Vamosi provides sufficient evidence to induce technological catatonia. For the rest of us, we’ll treat our technology like the rest of our lives: we’ll hobble along, hoping for the best, and if something bad happens, we'll deal with it, and move on.

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