by Wayne M. Krakau - Chicago Computer Guide, May, 2002
COMDEX Chicago 2002 is a story of good news versus bad news, with the bad news being not really so very bad. This is an overview of my impressions, not a thorough review off the event.

First, note the title change - from Chicago COMDEX in 2001. The organizers are no longer trying to disavow (as the say in Mission Impossible) this show as they did last year. Best of all, since they didn't over-hype it this time, they didn't incur the wrath of the vendors, the attendees and the media.

The fact the show was "downsized" and had lower attendance was tolerable in light of the fact that its big brother, Fall COMDEX in Las Vegas, suffered much the same fate. This is not to say that vendors were satisfied with attendance. They just didn't have the same level of anger.

There were some interesting trends to watch at the show. The most apparent was the increase in security-related products, especially those using biometrics. This entails the use of some physical characteristic to establish identity. The fingerprint was the characteristic of choice, though retinas and even voices were represented.

The new twist was the use of smart cards to hold the information that would be matched against the person, such as having the card hold an image of a fingerprint. If you say you own an ID or credit card, you would have to put your finger and the card in a scanner, which would confirm (or deny) a match between your finger and the stored image on the card.

I have become less enthusiastic about this technology since word has come out of its limitations and implications. In one case a bank installed thumb scanners on its ATMs and had to almost immediately yank them because of a rash of muggings that included thumb amputations. Think about what would have happened if they used retina scans!

In another situation, a security testing firm was able to take a cast of a person's thumb, create an artificial thumb, pump a warm liquid rhythmically through it to simulate life, and use it to crack security at a government installation.

I don't think I have to tell you the number of ways a person could hack a system that uses biometrics for identification across a wire (as in remote locations). Such a system could be hacked at the base image, by replacing or redirecting it, or by replacing the bitstream of info coming out of the scanning device.

I love this technology in principle, but, for the moment, I have been disillusioned regarding its ultimate security. It's like a simple alarm system for cars. It discourages the impulse crime by nonprofessional, but won't stop anyone who really knows what they are doing and is willing to make a serious effort.

Actually, the most eye-popping (if you'll excuse the expression) security exhibit wasn't one specifically dedicated to biometrics. It was for the National Safe Skies Alliance. The alarming part of this exhibit wasn't the threat of some draconian measures that someone might suggest for airport security. It was the fact that almost all of the security enhancements that are suggested in this organization's literature are NOT currently implemented at our airports today. (Keep in mind, however, that we are thoroughly protected against World War II veterans awarded Congressional Medals of Honor. One got stopped at an airport because the medal has a pin for attaching to a uniform. You wouldn't want a dangerous character like that to get on a plane with such a deadly weapon, would you?)

Two contradictory trends fit in the good news versus bad news category. Perhaps they might be more accurately described as being in the yin versus yang category. On the west side of the exhibit area there was a booth occupied by Women in Technology International (WITI - This booth was quite popular - among women, amazingly enough (who would have thought). In fact I never managed to get near enough to get this organization's literature. Only a few steps away, WITI had a dedicated seminar area with a revolving series of speakers. Again, this area was inhabited by - you guessed it - women (how shocking).

On the east side of the exhibit, seemingly as a counterpoint to WITI, was an open booth that initially was a bit of a mystery, since the people exhibiting there arrived late. I happened to be there when a woman and a man arrived, carrying many exhibition-style cases. Shortly thereafter, the booth was absolutely swamped with potential customers, with a long line quickly forming. The product was a type of electric massaging device. You might wonder why the sudden overwhelming interest in such a seemingly mundane product.

Oh, did I forget to tell you that the female half of the pair I mentioned stripped out of her exercise clothing and was wearing an itsy bitsy, teeny weenie, (though not, for you music fans out there who are old enough to remember, either yellow or polka-dotted) bikini? Of course, she was the one offering demonstrations of the massagers. Oh, did I also neglect to inform you that the crowd around this booth was exclusively male? (Will wonders never cease?)

I'll let you decide if, in the grand scheme of things - call it Karma, if you will - these two exhibitors balanced each other out of the equation. (Two steps forward and another two steps back?) Please note that there is no way that I am going to publicize the massager company by either mentioning its name or describing its products in detail.

Next month I'll cover PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants), cell phones as well as some not so trendy stuff.

©2002, Wayne M. Krakau