Zero History operative Milgrim is kept on a tight leash by his handler Ollie Sleight. He supplies Milgrim with nothing but an unusual phone and what he calls a “Faraday pouch” for carrying his passport.
Radio-frequency identification tags. They were in lots of things, evidently, and definitely in every recent U.S. passport…You could sit in a hotel lobby and remotely collect information from the passports of American businessmen. The Faraday pouch, which blocked all radio signals, made this impossible.
The pouch plays a role in Milgrim’s evolution as his involvement in corporate espionage deepens.
A Faraday pouch does exactly what the excerpt says, and they are pretty easy to buy or make. The one pictured above is homemade, but pricier versions are cloth pouches or wallets with conductive metal threads woven in. The result is a carrying case that negates electric fields, including radio signals. (The namesake is Michael Faraday, the English scientist who paved the way for much of our understanding of electric fields.)
Why would you want a Faraday cage? Lots of reasons, as noble as protecting powerline workers from electrocution. But the purpose in question is to block theft of personal information, by criminals, corporations or the government.
Tiny RFID chips are being used in all kinds of things to allow transfer of information without physical contact. The applications are endless, including injecting the tiny chips under the skin of pets to unlock a dog door, or tracking the activity of a bee colony. But common uses include passports, ID cards, and credit cards. Privacy advocates are seriously freaked out by the fact that identity thieves or whoever can swipe personal or financial data, or more sinister scenarios like using a person’s nationality indicated by a passport RFID to trigger an explosive.
It’s this kind of widespread vulnerability and potential that has the tech-savvy wrapping their possessions in tin foil. It’s easy to shrug off the threat, but corporations and governments have shown little respect for privacy. Another unsettling reality we tend to ignore is the constant trackability of our smartphones. A Faraday pouch will block the signal so you can’t be can’t be tracked by GPS, or send and receive calls.
In the world of Gibson’s later novels, our digital lives have ceased to be something you delve into, but instead have spilled out to our actual space, overlaying everything we know with an invisible stratum of connection. The Faraday pouch, like its carrier Milgrim, is a little black spot, a dark pocket, for better for worse, that nobody can see.
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