Scary new tech fears to haunt your Halloween

Here's the latest batch of problems, risks and potential nightmares from the world of technology

We all love our PCs and gadgets, don't we? Technology publications like this one (and columnists like me) love to wax eloquent about the wonders of the iPhone, the joys of Twitter and the un-Vista like qualities of Windows 7.

Sure, technology is all fun and games -- until somebody gets hurt.

In the spirit of Halloween, I'd like to freak you out with some newly reported threats that could come back to haunt all of us.

1. H1N1 flu pandemic could crash the Internet

The U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a report this week that said fear of the H1N1 flu pandemic could drive up telecommuting. This massive shift in where people are working could make it difficult for ISPs to manage the traffic, causing localized bottlenecks.

Although the report sounds alarmist, the effect of H1N1 fears on the Internet may be understated. The reason is that in the event of a real pandemic, both business travel and school attendance would plummet, in both cases replaced by heavy video-chat or videoconferencing.

The ISP and other infrastructure providers will have to scramble to cope with the shifting usage patterns, but may themselves be working from home -- further exacerbating the problem.

2. Podcasting can kill you.

In the latest round of iPhone, iPod and iTunes updates, Apple completely changed the system for continuous play of podcasts. Before, you would simply create a playlist in iTunes, drag your podcasts into it, then sync. On the device, you would play via the playlist, rather than the podcast area.

Now, when you try to drag podcasts into a playlist, iTunes won't let you. There's a new way to do this, but it's completely non-intuitive and hardly anyone knows how to do it, according to my informal poll.

As a result, podcast fans are manually backing out of a podcast episode they've finished listening to, and manually finding, drilling down to and playing the next podcast. In a car, this can kill. Fumbling for podcasts is at least as distracting as texting. Obviously, continuous play of podcasts is something that should just be there, and made super easy if for no other reason than safety.

(The solution, by the way, is to create a Smart Playlist where the criteria is "media kind" and "is" and "podcast" and then make sure that Smart Playlist is synchronizing under the Music tab of your device.)

3. Your cell phone might break your hip.

You've heard the neverending controversy about whether cell phones cause cancer, right? University researchers are more likely to say it does, while handset-industry funded research says it doesn't. While they were off bickering about cancer, a new study came out this week suggesting that wearing a cell phone on your hip may over time weaken the bone density of your pelvic area.

Researchers in Turkey compared bone density on one side of the hip compared with the other in hard-core cell phone belt-carriers, and found that the side they carried their cell phone on had slightly lower bone density.

4. Video games could destroy high school 'jock culture'

Call it "triumph of the nerds." High school is seen by many as one giant, endless contest between "jocks" -- outgoing, athletic, popular kids who excel in sports and cheerleading -- and "nerds" brainier kids who are more introspective, get better grades and enjoy comics, technology, and fandom more than sports.

If one commentator is to be believed, according to comments in forums, "nerds" are finally winning. Videogames are apparently transforming the kind of competitive, aggressive kids who would normally excel at football and other sports into soft, flabby indoor types who play fake games on gaming consoles instead of real games in stadiums, fields and courts. The jocks are becoming nerds.

5. Your cell phone will end all privacy

A piece on NewScientist.com suggests that ordinary cell phones are shaping up to be the Mother of All Privacy Violators.

First, the article points out, much of the private data, financial data, SMS messages and other personal information you think you've deleted from your phone may still reside on your phone's SIM card. If you lose the phone, someone with even moderate skills could read the deleted data using well-known forensic techniques and software.

Second, your average smart phone is loaded with sensors. GPS, accelerometers, even Wi-Fi electronics all can be used to find out where you are. This information is stored somewhere and could be used to track your every move.

Third, cell phones can be used for phishing. In the same way that thieves build non-functioning ATM machines to scan your ATM card and record your password, fake cell phones could do the same thing, grabbing your cell phone number, account passwords and other personal data.

And finally, sports-performance apps combined with Google Maps could be a new threat. Any enterprising cell phone thief could plug your athletic GPS data into Google Maps and see where you've been. By using the Street View feature, stalkers could actually see a photo of your house, complete with address on the mailbox.

This Halloween season seems to have more terrifying threats than usual. Technology has become so scary that I'll be dressing as "Balloon Boy" this Halloween: Yeah, I'll be hiding in a box in the garage.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. Contact Mike at mike.elgan@elgan.com, follow him on Twitter or his blog, The Raw Feed.

This story, "Scary new tech fears to haunt your Halloween" was originally published by Computerworld.

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