WASHINGTON – Passengers may soon be able to send e-mails from commercial aircraft 30,000 feet above ground. That was among several predictions two engineering experts described at a Capitol Hill briefing Monday.
Carl Gunter,a professor of computer science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign,said gaining access to the Internet while in flight is one of several cutting-edge projects in the works. He spoke at the American Association for the Advancement of Science's briefing on cyber security and protecting U.S. infrastructure.
If more efficient Internet security techniques are developed,he said,assisted living programs,emergency response efforts and the cost of household electricity could also be improved.
In addition to granting aircraft passengers Internet access,Gunter said another goal is for pilots' computer control system to be connected to the Internet,which would allow ground-level supervisors to monitor the state of the aircraft.
“That way,pilots wouldn't be responsible for everything,” he said.
Health care,particularly assisted living programs,could also benefit from advances in Internet security,Gunter said. He described a system in which patients' medical information could be instantly transferred to hospitals and other health care providers from their homes.
“Imagine your bathroom scale being connected to the Internet,” Gunter said. “The hospital would be able to keep a daily record of your health in a more fine-grained way.”
This system,he said,would permit frequent,efficient readings of individuals' vital signs,a crucial factor in the daily routines of diabetes and sleep apnea patients.
Similarly,Gunter said,an improved cyber security system would allow for networked electrical meters,or “smart meters,” advanced electrical meters that measure households' electrical consumption and communicate information via a wireless network to the local utility.
As electricity pricing usually rises at certain times of the day,a smart meter would notify consumers of that peak usage time,giving people the opportunity “to shop for power in a way they couldn't before,” Gunter said.
Even in times of emergency,Gunter said,an enhanced computer security system could provide essential backup mechanisms. Noting that the only communication system to withstand Hurricane Katrina was a surveillance camera network,he described a system of battery-powered meters that could handle 911 calls.
“If there's a power outage,and your cell phone is out,the smart meters can continue to work after everything else fails,” Gunter said.
Still,Gunter reiterated that these technological advances will only work efficiently if cyber security vulnerability is reduced. And with the Internet's increasing role as a medium for important personal and government information,the current trend,he said,is for computer hackers to seek political or financial gain. That's in contrast to earlier years,he said,when “high school students would do it for fun or to gain a reputation for themselves.”
Howard Lipson,a senior staff member at Carnegie Mellon University's Software Engineering Institute,was more cautious about the high-tech solutions.
“The Internet wasn't designed to resist highly untrustworthy users,” he said. “You can't be surprised when we apply all these high-level functions to the Internet,and there are security problems.”