Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Cell Phones That Are Too Smart for Their Own Good

In this piece of "cute" fantastic fiction, animals tap on a cell phone to help the lost cat's humans find him.


In real life, back in the 1990s before I'd started thinking of cell phones as personal safety devices, a student brought in a cell phone. "I found this in the street. Now you can have a cell phone." So of course I said, "Oh, what a kind thought! Thank you! Let's see how it works," and started pressing buttons. One of the menu buttons opened "My Contacts." I started writing down the numbers to try calling and asking whether anyone knew who'd lost the phone, and one of the numbers was "My Home." So I used a "real" land phone to dial "My Home" and left a message about the phone having been found on a certain busy street. In a few hours the owner of the phone called back, described the phone, and offered the student a chance to be photographed shaking hands with a real fireman who had dropped the phone on the way to a fire. And in a few weeks I started carrying my own cell phone, honestly paid for, almost never used.

Ten days ago, I found another cell phone lying in the street. I thought it was just a bit of scrap metal, but it was a "smart phone," and startled me by vibrating vigorously when I picked it up. I tried looking for "My Home." The phone lighted up with an indignant message that it hadn't been used for 24 hours, so now I needed to call some place and provide "my" secret code number, or else have the phone reprogrammed to recognize my fingerprint. Well, what could I do? It wasn't my phone; I wouldn't touch a phone that had been programmed to scan anybody's fingerprints; I'd found it near some debris from a collision on a lonely rural highway. I tried calling the non-emergency police line. The phone was programmed not to allow that. I tried calling the emergency line. At that precise moment, the phone vibrated and lighted up to indicate that someone was trying to call that phone. I gave up, dropped the phone into my knitting bag, walked on.

I thought about the phone again when its little light glowed out of my knitting bag after I'd blown out my candle for the night. I tried to turn it off to save the battery, but couldn't find a way to do that, so I tucked the phone away where at least the light wouldn't wake me up or attract anyone else's attention.

In the morning I got up and rushed out to work. I completely forgot that stray phone. The next day, when I opened the drawer where I'd hidden it, I thought, "I really ought to take that phone to the police station in town and ask whether anyone's reported it lost, but that can jollywell wait until morning!" The day after that I went into town, with the stray phone in my bag, but forgot to take it to the police station. So it was Friday before I did the right thing with the stray phone.

To make matters worse...I know only a few of the police officers who might or might not have known anything about the collision. Two of them I'm reasonably sure are honest. One, I know firsthand, is not. About the others I have no idea. Phone companies would of course restore service for the police, so if a valuable item happens to be found by a police officer who's not honest...especially if the collision was only a fender-bender and the police weren't called, which looked likely to have been the case, I still don't know that that phone has any chance of ever being returned to its rightful owner.

If only it had been a simple cell phone, like mine, with a list of a few friends' numbers...some people don't even have land phones any more, and some don't burden their cell phones' memory with their own phone numbers, but it might have been possible to trace the phone's owner from the owner's friends.

Or, if I'd happened not to be honest, to enjoy free phone service until someone else's prepaid phone time ran out. There are things to be said on both sides here.

Still, it seems to me that the fingerprint-scanning scam is an example of technology tripping over its own feet. What if the owner had lost his or her hand in the accident?

(This work of science fiction is already out of date--thank goodness!--but it does give readers a good clear mental picture of what fingerprint-scanning technology is likely to lead to.)