Interesting news from abroad: a set of hackers in the US have prised open the minimal security inside Motorola's cable modems and released the operating system within. You have to shove a serial cable inside, hook it up to a terminal program and interrupt its boot-up sequence by sending the appropriate commands, but once you've done that the whole of the modem lies at your beck and, indeed, call.
There are lots of nice details -- the processor and the operating system are the same as that on the Mars Rovers (presumably with better file management) -- but the lesson is clear. Systems like this have vulnerable points where you can not only get things you shouldn't, but can get total control. People are currently using it to uncap their cable connections, speeding up their downloads, but stuff like packet sniffers and security scanners are all on the cards. Infrastructure hacking like this creates whole new layers of potential virus, spam and remote control possibilities: given that most people seem to have trouble keeping viruses off their computers despite having enormous control over their software environment, heaven only knows what they'll do about badness in embedded systems. And they will be everywhere.
There's a Philip K. Dick short story called The Short Happy Life Of The Brown Oxford, which is about a shoe that comes to life and misbehaves. It is a whimsical, throw-away piece: very typical of the man but with no distinguishing features. I read recently that in the current Hollywood feeding frenzy for all matters Dickian, even that fluffy confection had been optioned: the sound of a barrel being scraped by an android was clearly audible.
But now I see the piece was strangely prescient, and more than worthy of celluloid. We already have shoes with built-in processors -- monitoring fitness, recording distance travelled, beating the cards at Vegas -- and once the spirit of hacking into objects really takes off, we won't be able to trust a wellington boot as far as we can throw it.