“Whatever the mind of man can conceive and believe,
it can achieve.”
– Napoleon Hill from Think and Grow Rich, 1937
Science fiction is only fiction until an author’s work inspires an inventor to turn paper concepts into real world marvels or mayhem. And just as often, the writer takes his cues from the research of his day, extrapolating many steps beyond and appearing like a prophet when he eventually turns out to be right.
Jules Verne is considered the father of science fiction. He was one of my favorite authors as I was growing up during the 1950’s and 60’s. During the last half of the twentieth century, advances in technology went from plodding along to supersonic speed. I’ve watched in amazement as the flights of fantasy from my youth turned into fact.
Verne wrote From the Earth to the Moon in 1865—and we’ve been there, done that! Less than a hundred years after Jules wrote about a moon shot, the Soviet Union crash-landed their Luna 2 spacecraft on the moon in 1959, and ten years later, the United States’ Apollo 11 delivered the first men to walk on the moon on July 20, 1969.
Prior to 1870, Jules Verne studied the early submarine, Nautilus, built by Robert Fulton in 1800 and the French Navy’s new submarine, Plongeur, which was exhibited at the Exposition Universelle in 1867. Building on that research when he wrote Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea about Captain Nemo’s adventures, Verne named his embellished submarine after Fulton’s real-life creation. Later when the United States Navy debuted the world’s first operational nuclear-powered submarine, it was dubbed the USS Nautilus (SSN-571) after Nemo’s fictional vessel.
In The Purchase of the North Pole (the second sequel to From the Earth to the Moon written in 1889), Jules Verne chronicles how the Baltimore Gun Club from his earlier book attempts to purchase the North Pole to access large deposits of coal beneath it. Fast-forward to August 2007: Russia made headlines by planting its flag on the ocean floor under the North Pole in an attempt to claim the rights to the sea bed which could be rich in oil and gas.
Like Jules Verne, H. G. Wells was dubbed “a man before his time,” not that he didn’t try to rectify that in 1895 with the publication of his science fiction novella, The Time Machine. We’re still working on time travel, but that’s proving to be much more elusive than some of the other inventions of fiction writers.
However in 1898, Wells wrote about a very early example of a ray gun called the Heat-Ray, which he featured in his now classic novel, The War of the Worlds. On March 2, 2008, CBS ran a story on 60 Minutes revealing details of the Pentagon’s Ray Gun in action, and that was only the tip of that iceberg. The military industrial complex already has developed everything from hand-held to satellite “ray weapons.”
After visiting inventor Al Gross, the creator of the Dick Tracy cartoon strip, Chester Gould, introduced the 2-Way Wrist Radio in 1946. Even folks who never read those comics are aware of that icon that was eventually upgraded to a 2-Way Wrist TV in 1964 that foreshadowed communication devices to come. Have you used a webcam or Skyped lately?
Written in 1949, George Orwell’s book, 1984, was birthed the same year I was. After reading it during high school, I was relieved when we passed through the year 1984 without any obvious evidence of the dark world he described where the nefarious “Party,” also known as “Big Brother,” watched everyone through television screens, even in their own homes. While his timeline was off, Orwell wasn’t wrong about the technology, and most everyone is familiar with the Big Brother phrase he coined. Today, there are video cameras in banks and most stores where Security can watch your every move, along with camera surveillance outside buildings and along streets in all major cities. The premise is that it’s merely for our security and safety. Really? George might have something to say about that…er, he already did. Meanwhile, the FBI is investigating while parents sue a Pennsylvania school district for spying on students via webcams on laptops sent home with them. And oblivious consumers who don’t think things through or educate themselves about the unintended consequences before they naively “app,” are now enabling their own televisions, computers, cell phones and GPS devices so governments, businesses and criminals can spy on them.
In 1966, Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS), flip-open communicators sparked the imagination of children and adults alike, and Dr. Martin Cooper, inventor of the first handheld mobile phone, credits the TOS communicator as being his inspiration for that technology. How many times did you flip open your cell phone today?
Throughout history, writers, inventors and scientists have been scoffed at and even threatened when their creativity collided with the conventional beliefs of their time. I cite the examples above to illustrate the validity of Napoleon Hill’s quote posted at the top. Something is only impossible until it isn’t anymore. And having taken a circuitous route, I will now get to what sparked the title of this blog and my breadcrumb trail.
In 1927, Sir Julian Sorell Huxley wrote a science fiction story titled, “The Tissue-Culture King.” In it, the leading character discovers that “caps of metal foil” can be used to block the effects of telepathy. Thus was launched a new brand of paranoia, which led to all manner of conspiracy theories, along with the ridicule and persecution of everyone from mental patients and advanced thinkers to anyone who researched anything remotely connected to tinfoil shielding…or the need for it. Ironically, that story was one of the few fictional things Huxley authored, as most of his numerous other writings are works of scientific and political non-fiction.
While there’s no proof that a tinfoil hat can block ESP by humans, paranormal beings or ETs, there is some scientific validity that a sufficiently thick layer of tinfoil can reduce the intensity of radio frequency waves. More importantly for our purposes here, tinfoil has been proven to protect credit cards and other forms of ID from thieves who are after your personal information. Why would you need that protection, you ask? Just like my science fiction examples where things once considered unlikely or impossible eventually entered our reality, the folks concerned about the dangers of radio frequency transmissions were actually on to something.
It’s time to get educated about RFID, which stands for Radio Frequency Identification, because it’s already a part of your life and will become even more so in the future. RFID chips are probably already in your wallet. They exist in many debit, check and credit cards including American Express’s Expresspay, Chase’s Blink Credit Card, Discover Zip, Mastercard PayPass Credit Card, Visa payWave, and also in many Corporate and University IDs and Euro and United States Passports (issued since 2006). Some driver’s licenses and even cash contain RFID tags.
How do you know if you’re tagged? In some cases, it’s almost impossible, but when in doubt, assume you’re IT. Check your credit cards for this symbol, either on the front or back, and if you’re not sure, call the number on the back of the card to ask if there’s an RFID chip in it:
Look for this symbol on the front of your passport under country of origin:
Here’s why you need to be concerned: your RFID-enabled credit card (or other ID) emits a radio signal that transmits all your credit card information just as though you slid it through the traditional credit card machine at the checkout counter. That RFID tag can be read at a distance without your knowledge, making it possible for someone to gather your personal information without your consent. That’s called “skimming,” and for less than $100, a thief can build the gear needed to snag your info by just getting within close proximity of you as you shop or walk down the street.
Yes, technology saves time and makes our lives easier. But in the case of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), you could have your credit card stolen and not even know it. So, what are some solutions?
1) If you’re concerned about the safety of your information, consider leaving your RFID credit cards at home and using them only for online purchases. Pay for things outside your home with cash or regular credit cards.
2) Most people have more than one credit card—when you go out, only take the one you need. Rethink your use of key chain type scanner cards.
3) A small amount of protection can be achieved by stacking all your RFID cards together in your wallet, as that makes it harder for a scanner to read the info off of an individual card.
4) Now…drum roll please…here comes the tinfoil solution: wrap your RFID credit cards in a double layer of aluminum foil before putting them in your wallet. An article on the subject by Consumer Reports Magazine stated: “Our reporter offered her own homemade shield constructed of duct tape and lined with aluminum foil. It provided better protection than eight of the 10 commercial products, including a stainless-steel RFID blocking wallet selling online for about $60.” See instructions for protecting individual cards here and a spiffy homemade wallet here.
5) If you want something that looks fancier, a number of companies sell fairly inexpensive aluminum sleeves that hold a single credit card when not in use, which they claim will prevent RFID scanners from reading data off the cards.
6) If you prefer not to have a separate shield for each of your cards, check out the special RFID-blocking wallets available online at places like Amazon.com. There are also specially lined sleeves to protect passports.
7) Every month, monitor your credit card and bank statements for errors or odd charges.
While entertaining fear and paranoia serves no useful purpose, and in fact, can attract the very things we dread, using common sense is the obvious order of the day. Stay informed and alert. When Benjamin Franklin borrowed Henry de Bracton’s quote, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” for his Poor Richard’s Almanack, he passed along sage advice. And in the case of RFID, far less than an ounce of tinfoil can be worth thousands of protected dollars.
As for my tinfoil hat…who knows what future use may yet be conceived of for that…
Russia Claims North Pole
Summary of 1984 for those who weren’t required to read it in school
The Pentagon’s Ray Gun – 60 Minutes — This story was originally broadcast on March 2, 2008. It was updated on May 30, 2008.
The CIA wants to spy on you through your TV: Agency director says it will ‘transform’ surveillance
Fascinating biography of Sir Julian Sorell Huxley
History of the Tinfoil hat
What is Radio-frequency identification?
RFID Credit Card Skimming; Your Credit Card Never Leaves Your Pocket, but your info gets stolen anyway.
How Smart is Your Credit Card? (See if you’re carrying a “smart card” with contactless technology)
Consumer Reports magazine: June 2011 – “Newer cards can be hijacked, too”
Credit Card Info Can Be Stolen As You Walk Down the Street: How to Protect Yourself (also see video there and instructions to make a tinfoil shield for a credit card)
How to make your own, RFID Blocking Wallet
How to Keep RFID Credit Cards Safe
And if you’re really paranoid, check out this solution:
How To De-RFID Your Credit Card
While dated 2006, there’s interesting info on RFID use on passports here.