I always thought the idea of physically smuggling data was absurd. Even physically transporting data seemed silly to me because if you have broadband you can simply upload or download it. For really big data I have a gigabit connection at a data center where I rent space, so sometimes I’ll do a massive download and just show up at the facility with a 1.5 terrabyte drive and hit the local Starbucks while it takes a few minutes to copy over what I’ve downloaded.
I have either given or thrown away countless USB thumb drives I’ve been given as gifts from Google AdWords and other companies. What’s the point?
Two things changed my mind about why physically transporting data is interesting. A conversation with Sebastian Thrun (creator of Google Street View) that I had a few years back where he told me that Fedexing data is, and probably always will be, the highest bandwidth way of moving data around. That’s why Google uses Fedex to send hard drives from their Street View vans back to headquarters.
The second thing that changed my mind was a new law in the UK that makes it illegal to not hand over encryption keys if the police want to decrypt your data. The penalty is two to five years in prison for simply refusing to hand over the keys. The logical outcome is that a lot of energy will now be spent on hiding the existence of encrypted data.
I think two fields will emerge. The first is the art of hiding encrypted data when transferring it across a wire. If time is not a factor then this may be the way to go. Simply altering the sequence or transmission times of TCP packets can encode data, although it will be very low bandwidth.
The second area where I think you’ll see more activity is the physical hiding of data. The reason I think more energy will be spent in this area is because it allows for very high bandwidth. If you can hide a 2 terrabyte drive and take a 6 hour journey to get it fro A to B, your bandwidth is 776 Megabits per second. Try and get that on your cable modem or ADSL link.
Data storage devices that self destruct aren’t interesting when it comes to solving this problem. A self destructing drive lets police know that you have data that you never allowed them to decrypt, so presumably you’ll get your 2 to 5 years. The data needs to be invisible.
Storing data on or inside your body may be one solution. According to Scientific American:
The human brain consists of about one billion neurons. Each neuron forms about 1,000 connections to other neurons, amounting to more than a trillion connections. If each neuron could only help store a single memory, running out of space would be a problem. You might have only a few gigabytes of storage space, similar to the space in an iPod or a USB flash drive. Yet neurons combine so that each one helps with many memories at a time, exponentially increasing the brain’s memory storage capacity to something closer to around 2.5 petabytes (or a million gigabytes). For comparison, if your brain worked like a digital video recorder in a television, 2.5 petabytes would be enough to hold three million hours of TV shows. You would have to leave the TV running continuously for more than 300 years to use up all that storage.
I’m not sure I would want to upload data directly to my brain, lest I overwrite the breathing function. But biological data storage is clearly worth looking at if your intent is to hide data.
So maybe Johnny Mnemonic wasn’t so absurd after all: