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Futurologist defends 'malevolent dust' warning

Dust up over supposed evil particles

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A futurologist has defended his controversial warning that "smart dust" is liable to become a future information stealing threat.

Ian Pearson outlined the supposed threat in a recent study Life and How We’ll Live It Futurizon report, commissioned by IT giant Fujitsu. "Tiny specks of smart dust dropped through ventilation grills on office equipment will allow interception of data before it even gets to an encryption device," according to one section of the much larger study.

Both El Reg and security firm Sophos made merry at the concept, wondering about whether security firms might need to develop microscopic barrage balloons and wondering how smart dust would be collected after it was used, perhaps by a very advanced hoover and filter.

Pearson was on his way to Australia at the time Fujitsu released the report but we caught up with him on Thursday and challenge him to explain how interception of data via the so-called "smart dust" was supposed to work. He said his idea drew inspiration from advances in nanotechnology and microprocessor fabrication. Smart dust particles could be cheaply fabricated and would be disposable (eliminating the need for a hoover).

They would draw energy by induction and extract information by side channels, such as power fluctuations, or stray RF signals. Harvested information would be transmitted using low-power, short range bursts. Such monitoring devices would be very difficult if not impossible to frustrate and particularly useful in attempting to extract information from physically secure locations, such as military facilities.

Pearson said critics had drawn from what's possible now in criticising his concept, accusing them of a lack of information. However he conceded that the smart dust approach was far more complex than attempting to trick users into installing malware, an approach that's been highly effective since the dawn of the internet if not before.

Futurologists have the task of surveying new developments in technology and directions in research to make predictions about future technologies. Part of their job, arguably, is also getting mocked for their findings.

Pearson, pictured with a crystal ball in his biography here, has a strong background in technology, having worked in BT's research labs for many years before going freelance. He specialises in longer-term technology predictions and claims a success rate of 85 per cent in his predictions.

"Although I use the slightly wacky sounding title of futurologist, I’m just an engineer making logical deductions for tomorrow based on things we can already see happening," he explains. "For example, if someone is investing heavily in a particular development, and there aren’t any obvious barriers to success, there is a good chance that they will succeed in due course."

Pearson has been involved in futurology for almost 20 years and claims to have been the first to come up with the idea of text messaging, a concept dismissed by engineers when he first suggested it. Perhaps the same might be true of smart dust. ®

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