One of the key jobs we entrust to technology is to keep us safer. We see it in metal detectors and body scanners at the airport, airbags in our cars, security cameras in our offices, antivirus firewalls on our computers. But technology has upped the ante on our day-to-day safety in many less-obvious ways.
Maybe we rely on these technologies to do other jobs, but their role in our ongoing wellbeing goes unnoticed. Nevertheless, it’s one of the safest times to be alive thanks to these four underappreciated technologies that make us safer …
1. Data Encryption
We often talk about encryption without understanding what it means. Cryptographers were hired to crack enemy codes during modern wars. In fact, Alan Turing built one of the first computers to crack a Nazi code that was credited with winning the war.
We often think about “encryption” as being separate from this wartime footing, but it isn’t really. Encrypting something still means exactly the same thing it did during World War II—taking a piece of information and scrambling it so that prying eyes cannot interpret it. When it arrives at its destination, authorized users may be able to reconstitute the data in its original meaning—if they have a “key” to solve the code.
Turing’s early code-breaking computer was a precursor to modern automated encryption and decryption, which uses the power of computing to encrypt and decrypt complex algorithms that would take human minds years or even centuries to decrypt. If you have ever visited a website that begins with “https” instead of “http,” you are visiting a website that uses an encrypted version of the hypertext markup language (HTML), the ubiquitous code for web design.
However, that doesn’t mean that the computer that lives on your computer—or your company’s servers—is encrypted by default. In fact, most of your data could easily be read by a hacker, which is why more and more users are getting BitLocker to encrypt their PCs and FileVault2 to encrypt their Macs.
The consequences of data files unencrypted can be dire. The costly cyber thefts that rocked Equifax, Target, Home Depot, and Anthem Health took advantage of unencrypted data. So did Edward Snowden’s theft of government data. Think what you want to about Snowden—substitute him for a hacker from a hostile state or terrorist group, and the risk becomes more clear.
We’re moving in the direction of “end-to-end” encryption—encrypting data at the source, transferring it in encrypted packets, and leaving it encrypted at the destination. It’s a key front in the fight to keep us safe from cybercrime.
2. Fingerprint Scanning
Fingerprints are one of the most common forms of biometric data. They have been used to keep records of both criminals and agents of public trust (police officers, REALTORs, etc.) for decades. But the technology that uses image capture to quickly scan fingerprints in-person and match them with relevant data is a game changer, in so many ways.
Consider the convenience of fingerprint scanning technology to unlock a phone or personal computer. Data security experts recommend that a digital password be eight characters or longer, with a mix of numerals, capital letters, lower-case letters, and special characters. Then, and only then, do you have a password that is likely to keep you safe from a concerted effort to rob you of your data. To make matters worse, they recommend that you never reuse your password, and that you write your passwords nowhere except your memory. It’s an impossible feat for the human mind to remember that many random passwords.
Fingerprints, on the other hand, are a complex password that we carry with us throughout our lives.
Fingerprint scanners also play a key role at border checkpoints. “Trusted Traveller” programs like US Global Entry allow passengers to store their fingerprints on file and use instantaneous fingerprint scanning to skip the line at customs, re-entering the US in record time, without sacrificing border security.
3. Data Loggers
There’s a reason industries like medical devices, pharmaceuticals, and food production are heavily regulated—faulty inventory can cause a public health crisis and endanger lives. These products have to be manufactured to exacting specifications and stored or transported in optimal environmental conditions.
These environmental conditions—temperature, pressure, humidity, etc.—used to be monitored by hand, at great risk to the integrity of the data. Compliance with regulations on the cold chain and cold storage of meat or vaccines, or the humidity conditions under which antibiotics were stored could be irregular, given manual monitoring, endangering safety.
Digital data loggers changed all of that. Data loggers are a technology available from Dickson and other companies used extensively to monitor sensitive products. Sensors record environmental conditions like temperature, pressure, and humidity automatically, the data interpreted by a microprocessor, stored on a data drive, and sometimes uploaded directly to the cloud for review and compliance.
Some modern data loggers even alert quality control personnel if a condition like temperature drops below or rises above optimal levels, allowing them to react and correct the condition before the merchandise is ruined.
4. GPS Tracking
No one looks at a map or asks for directions anymore. We take GPS tracking for granted—everyone has it on their smartphone, and it tells us in a cheery voice how to get everywhere. We rarely think about how satellites in outer space, calibrated for the relativistic effects of the reduced gravity on the flow of time, enable this seemingly banal technology.
Nevertheless, the impact of GPS tracking is much bigger than Siri’s directions to your new friend’s house. GPS is used for land, sea, and air navigation, as well as search and rescue missions, geotargeting kidnapped cars, even rescuing kidnapping victims. It is also critical in locating unauthorized nuclear programs, as well as military operations critical for the geopolitical stability of the world.
Some technologies live on every smartphone or PC in the world. Others are niche technologies only used in specialty industries. However, whether we encounter them in our day-to-day lives, whether we ever spare them a thought at all, these technologies form a shield around us, making our lives safer and more prosperous by the year.