Hackers: HotSynced for crime

The latest craze -- scanning (and saving) credit cards with your Palm. It just shows 'the street has its own uses for technology.'

William Gibson once said, "The street has its own uses for technology." It's proven true of the Palm Pilot.

Last week, 26-year-old Bloomingdale's cashier Tania Ventura was charged with four felonies for allegedly using her portable electronic organiser and an attached magnetic stripe reader to surreptitiously copy customer's credit card information for what are presumed to be less than altruistic purposes.

What model Palm did she use? Supposedly, a first generation Palm Pilot, at least 3 years old. The alleged scam was exposed after a Greek tourist noticed that Ventura swiped his credit card through two different scanners. One of the scanners, the police and store management later found, was attached to the pocket-sized computer so beloved by the young and hip.

As one who's watched with unease the growing legions of upwardly mobile technophiles using these little toys for everything from storing phone numbers to calculating tips at restaurants, I'm not overly surprised by this development. The cashier was probably hooked, and was doubtless in search of a credit line that would support an upgrade from a clunky Palm III to the svelte Palm V. Or she was feeding a $100 (£60) a month airtime habit for her oh-so-wireless Palm VII. To be a Palm junkie is to be forever in need of more -- more sleekness, more connectivity, more conspicuous ways of displaying ownership of a $450 electronic status symbol.

It's about time one of them went to jail. Palm fetishism begins when you try out a friend's organiser, fully prepared to mock his or her reliance on yet another piece of technology. Then you feel the solid-yet-balanced weight of the device, the smooth metal slightly cool against the skin of your left palm as your right hand cradles the stylus gently between your fingers and writes without friction on the glass surface before touching a button and hearing the clean, satisfying "click" of accomplishment. The bold, black letters are suspended in liquid crystal over a faintly green background: Address, Date Book, To Do List, Stolen Credit Card Number List.

The Palm's technology has even seduced computer geeks, who would normally eschew anything so desirable to the power-tie set. Hackers have anointed the products with memory upgrades, overclocking, and a rumored Linux port in the works.

Now a department store cashier has found a new killer app. What model Palm did she use? According to a company spokesperson, it was a first generation Palm Pilot, "at least 3 years old."

"It certainly shows the extendibility of the platform," Palm's Maria Amundson says good-naturedly. "But there are thousands and thousands of developers doing positive things, and when someone uses the product for something illegal, that's what gets the attention."

Amundson still remembers that painful time -- almost a year ago to the day -- when the press discovered that the Palm's infrared port could, under certain unlikely conditions, be used to spoof the keyless entry systems on some British automobiles. "That was an even more remote possibility," says Amundson, who had to summon all her PR skills to combat the image of roving toughs swaggering down the streets of London waving their electronic organisers like magic wands as car doors pop open left and right.

Assuming she had a larcenous bent, Ventura could have simply copied down credit card numbers with pencil and paper, sparing the Palm any further taint of criminality, and sparing herself the national exposure and artificially amped-up sentencing range of a "computer crime."

But then, you can use a pencil and paper for almost anything the Palm Pilot can do. It's just not the same.

Take me to Hackers