Where does my phone stop and where do I begin

My father-in-law is visiting from New York here with my family in Jerusalem. At one point, he wanted to connect to his online email. He entered his username and password and was informed that his present location was drastically different from his regular log on-site. As such, the software was suspicious that this was either a spam attack or another individual trying to hack into his account.

Normally, this is not more than an inconvenience. The software offered the option to have a special code sent to my father-in-law’s mobile phone. With this code, my father-in-law would have been able to login as usual. There was however a simple but critical problem – although his phone was functioning, and was apparently able to receive calls and text messages from anywhere in the world, the security message simply did not come through. We tried multiple times but nevertheless, his phone never rang nor received an SMS with the special entry code.

The solution ended up taking me a bit of time. I tried using a well-known add-on to the Chrome browser that masks the IP address of the computer. But for some reason, the add-on was not installing properly. Also I had recently read that the add-on was problematic for various reasons and I was not particularly happy about adding it to my system.

I ended up downloading  Firefox which has its own built-in IP masking software. I selected the option for “United States” from the drop-down list, and magically my father-in-law was able to access his emails.

I learned a great deal from this experience, in terms of general security issues and how, in our present day world, we identify ourselves. Firstly, I realized still how problematic it can be to travel. Even though more people are traveling than ever before, the security fallout from these frequent changes in continents is clearly problematic for all types of software. A second thing I learned is that major companies simply assume that people have mobile phones. Admittedly, if my father-in-law had specified a landline when he first set up his Yahoo account, he could have managed to identify himself without having a mobile phone. But that would have required someone back in New York to receive the call.

Ultimately, there is a basic assumption that anyone wanting to access the Internet is going to have a mobile phone. As many mobile phones as there are in the world, there are still a great many people who do not have one. So it seems that for these phone-less people, they will have one of two choices: get a phone or get access to some other type of identifying technology.

Clearly, this further increases the problematic nature of losing a phone. Since mobile phones are effectively our virtual avatars and are clearly necessary for self identification, losing a mobile phone is extremely anxiety-provoking. Basically, once you lose this standard way of identifying yourself, what are your other options? Considering how much information many people store on their phones, losing a phone is effectively giving a stranger the keys to your entire virtual world. I think it is fair to say that there is a need for an alternative type of digital identifier, at least as a backup to mobile phones.

From a medical perspective, I find it fascinating that phones are used as identifiers for very personal information, as well as a means of payment, but are still not  used as a means of identification for patients in a hospital. In many healthcare services, the medical staff rely on charts and paper tags to know which patient is which. And yes, this leads to far too many errors. While not everyone has a mobile phone, as I noted above, it still strikes me that a mobile phone system for patient identification would reduce errors dramatically. As smart watches finally hit the market, and considering that some of these smart watches are relatively inexpensive, it should not take long for hospital systems to be able to use either a mobile phone or smart watch as the ultimate patient ID. It really isn’t clear to me why no one seems to be pushing this possible use of phones and watches in the medical sphere.

I want to take a moment and point out that both Apple and Google are about to begin a huge war over phone-based technologies for payment. This war will not be limited to phones, but will also apply to any mobile device. Microsoft recently published a video of its vision of the near future in which a smart wristband is used for making payments. The outcome of this war will be new technologies that make it easier and easier to identify the user. Whether it be smart tattoos or implanted chips, people will soon welcome such identifying technologies so that they can buy a cup of coffee with nothing more than a wave of their hand.

I think it’s fair to say that most people both in the consumer and business spheres agree that standard passwords are incredibly easy to hack. It cannot be that a person can be allowed to secure their information with a password such as 12345. And when a user forgets their password, it can turn into a nightmare trying to self identify in order to be allowed to access all of their existing data. For all of the concerns about the loss of privacy, people will soon embrace technologies that are even physically embedded inside of them, so that they never have to worry about passwords again. With reliable universal identification, many new possibilities will open up. And I personally believe that in 20 years from now, people will look back and wonder why there was ever such a fuss over these issues.

Thanks for listening

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About the Author
Dr. Nahum Kovalski received his bachelor's of science in computer science and his medical degree in Canada. He came to Israel in 1991 and married his wife of 22 years in 1992. He has 3 amazing children and has lived in Jerusalem since making Aliyah. Dr. Kovalski was with TEREM Emergency Medical Services for 21 years until June of 2014, and is now a private consultant on medicine and technology.
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