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Somebody Spying on You? Must Be the Shoes


All right. And there's more than music on your iPod if you have something called the Nike+iPod sport kit. This thing goes in your shoe and connects to your iPod. And there there's a little voice that comes over your music, and it tells you how far you've run and calories and such.

Sounds neat, but report Jeff Rice says a team of graduate students at the University of Washington has found out the sport kit raises privacy concerns.

JEFF RICE: The Nike+iPod sport kit features a small, built-in pedometer that sends radio signals to an iPod Nano. As you run, a motivational voice gives you updates on things like your pace, distance and calories burned.

Unidentified Woman: Eleven minutes, 16 seconds completed. Distance - .22 miles. Current pace - 852 per mile.

RICE: One of the people who bought the shoe iPod combo was Scott Saponas, a graduate student in computer science at the University of Washington.

Mr. SCOTT SAPONAS (Graduate Student, University of WA): And I started using it to track my runs. It even helped me motivate to run more.

RICE: It's just the kind of gadget that appeals to Scott, who's a student of what is known as ubiquitous computing.

Mr. SAPONAS: The idea is looking at interfaces for computers for the next generation of computing applications. It occurred to me that it's possible that applications like this could potentially be leaking information I don't want it to leak.

RICE: So he fears that devices like the speedometer, which sold almost a half a million units in its first few months, are a privacy concern. Consider Scott's shoes. Right now, the little, seemingly innocuous shoe pedometer is sending out all kinds of information - not just that he's running at a seven-minute pace or how many calories he's burning.

Mr. SAPONAS: I've burned 49 calories in the course of this interview, according to my Nike+iPod Sport Kit.

RICE: As part of a class project, Scott and two other graduate students have shown that the shoes sends out a potential tracking signal.

Mr. SAPONAS: So what happens is with the sensor in my shoe, when I start walking around, it starts broadcasting a unique identifier. So we can…

RICE: Saponas and the other members of the study team, Carl Hartung and Jonathan Lester, are looking at a Google Earth image on a large screen.

Mr. SAPONAS: No, we need to plug it in to the speakers.

RICE: Every time Saponas runs around the room or simply taps his foot, his location shows up on the map. A code sent by the pedometer in the shoe travels anywhere from 10 to 60 feet. A hacker with a basic knowledge of soldering could place a small receiver at strategic locations, let's say next to a running path, or…

Mr. SAPONAS: One at the dorm, one at the gym, one at the cafeteria - a place where the person is likely to be.

RICE: The signal can then be plugged into a computer and tracked.

(Soundbite of music being cut off)

RICE: Some critics say those scenarios are far-fetched. Apple refused to comment for this story, while Nike issued this written statement.

Unidentified Man: (Reading) Nike takes consumer privacy very seriously. The Nike+iPod Sport Kit features the same level of security as millions of other wireless consumer electronics devices such as mobile phones, Bluetooth devices and cordless phones. Should the consumer have any concerns, the sensor can easily be turned off or removed.

RICE: But privacy advocates say those millions of consumer electronic devices that Nike mentions may just be the big issue in all of this. University of Washington Professor Yoshi Kohno, who co-authored a paper with the students about the potential security problems, says this is about a broader issue.

Professor YOSHI KOHNO (Computer Science, University of Washington): So I think one of the purposes of our study was just to understand the trends in modern technology. And what we found was that modern technology is still coming out that don't fully address the broad spectrum of privacy issues.

RICE: Lee Tien, a lawyer with the nonprofit advocacy group The Electronic Frontier Foundation, calls this kind of thing a form of privacy pollution. A single product is one thing, but millions of everyday devices are another.

Mr. LEE TIEN (Lawyer, The Electronic Frontier Foundation): The real question that we have to face is do we want this kind of technology and the attitude that comes with it to be the way things are over the next 10, 15, 20 years? Because if everyone thinks that way, then we're probably guaranteed that the social environment will be very dense with tracking devices that have no security and will also be dense with readers. Let's look at the big picture. It's a marathon, not a sprint.

RICE: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Rice in Seattle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeff Rice