The Thoth Radio Telescope in Algonquin Park
About ten years ago, one of my interlining suppliers showed me a new product they were developing. At the time there were concerns (principally in Europe, where this company was located) about the health effects of cellphone radiation. There are still such concerns, as reports continue to surface about exposure to wireless devices. This new product was meant to protect from such radiation. I, however, had another idea about it.
My mother may have taught me to sew, but my father taught me to be curious about things. An engineer at the National Research Council of Canada, my parents were living in the wilderness at the site of the Algonquin Radio Observatory around the time I was born. They moved to Ottawa where my father worked at their primary research campus and on family days I would go visit him at a wind tunnel or a wave tank or other such facility. To my very young self it seemed the coolest thing that my father got to do what seemed like playing giant games and push flashing buttons at work all day. So even though my artistic side won over my scientific side when it came to studies and career paths, I was still familiar with and highly curious about the inner and outer workings of things, and had a basic understanding of things like wireless signals and frequencies.
So when the supplier showed me his product, a cloth with a copper mesh woven into it, I asked him to go back to the lab in Germany to see if the size of the mesh were sufficient to block certain types of frequency. He later confirmed that it could so I explained my idea to him.
Merchants had been introducing mobile payment systems, the PayPass type of thing where you would wave a key fob near a reader on a gas pump or a credit card terminal and your payment information would be transmitted automatically. Powered by Radio Frequency Identification, or RFID, these key fobs and credit cards used the same technology as many remote car keys, enhanced drivers licenses, passports and security access cards. I knew that it was a fairly simple and inexpensive thing to build a skimmer which would allow a criminal to collect data from these devices merely by passing close to a person carrying one. David Beckham later made the news when his armor-plated BMW X-5 was stolen by thieves using a skimming device. It's become more and more common these days, as instructions for building skimmers are available on the internet, and some cel phones can also be used to surreptitiously collect this data.
My idea was that this new material, when properly applied, could be used to create a shielding pocket which would block RFID skimming. I suggested it to my boss at the time, but the RFID-enabled payment systems were still too new and he didn't get it. Over subsequent years I would bring it up again from time to time, usually to the same quizzical looks. Clothing people are not always the most technologically-savvy people. But now Apple Pay has entered the arena, and other mobile-payment technologies like LoopPay, and while the companies supplying these technologies tell us the data is encrypted and secure, the recent hacks at Target, Home Depot, and Neiman Marcus, etc. have shown that things may not be quite as secure and encrypted as they really should be. The only way to really be sure that nobody can collect your personal data from your phone and credit cards is to enclose them a shielding device. One which is, in this case, soft and fully dry-cleanable.
So now that people are more aware of potential risks of wireless identity theft, and I also have a much freer hand to experiment with things at work, I am finally going to be able to bring this idea to market. Some of my Fall 2015 garments will be equipped with a pocket that will be lined with the shielding material and closed with a special zipper that we can only get in Japan so that cards and other devices can be shielded form skimming, but also so that you can zip up all your stuff in a pocket when you chuck your jacket in the x-ray bin at the airport or when traveling through crowded, pickpocket-prone areas. The labs in Germany are now working on other interesting new textile solutions like heated fibers and silver anti-microbial treatments (which have the added bonus of protecting against vampires!) so I am converting part of our design process into an experimental lab to see how some of these developments can be applied in the real world.
My job just got that much more interesting.
Shielding test data on our new copper mesh textile