Friday, June 25, 2010

Serendipitous collisions

A really good idea is nothing more than the collision of a problem with a solution.

When the timing of that collision is just-right, wonderful things happen and a lot of money can be made.

A great example of this is a BNZ employee who was tasked with the job of thwarting the activities of card "skimmers" -- those evil little sods who secretly read the magnetic strip on your EFTPOS or credit card then transfer it onto a blank card so as to effectively create a perfectly functional clone.

Possibly because New Zealand has been rather late to the part on implementing chip-based cards, New Zealand has become a popular place for card skimmers to ply their trade. A while back there was a spate of ATMs which had been covertly fitted with card-skimmers and tiny cameras to catch not only the data on a card's magnetic stripe but also the PIN number used to access that card.

Shortly after this, banks fitted "anti-skimming" devices to their ATMs which were designed to thwart the simple devices being used by skimmers. Sometimes these work but reportedly, sometimes they don't. Besides which, there have been plenty of other ways in which those intent on capturing the gold hidden in your card's magnetic strip can obtain that data.

Well the nice man at BNZ was puzzling how to overcome card-skimming until such time as all Kiwis were using chipped plastic and came up with a really bright idea...

Why not alter the information each time the card is used -- effectively creating a digital fingerprint on the card that was changed after each transaction?

Sheer brilliance -- so long as the card reader was also a writer.

It means that each time the card is used, its fingerprint is compared with the one on file and if they don't match then it's clear that the card is a clone which is now a transaction or two out of date. What's more, even if the card skimmers get in first and make a transaction before the bonafide cardholder, he will be alerted when his own card is rejected at the next point of sale or ATM.

The idea was patented and now this chap's praises are being sung far and wide by the media. Well the NZ media anyway.

Now I bet a fair number of people reading this are saying to themselves "I could have thought of that, it's so simple". The truth is that yes, most of us could have though of it -- but we didn't. That's why this chap is a minor celebrity and stands to make a handsome amount of money from licensing, whereas the rest of us don't.

Now there are other problems that exist in the world for which a good solution is worth gold.

Take the problems BP are facing over their leaky well in the Gulf of Mexico.

Apparently there are tens of thousands of good ideas flooding in (via the web) to BP's troubleshooters. In fact, reports indicate that there are just too many ideas being submitted by optimistic "ideas guys" and BP simply don't have the time or resources to check out the viability of them all (come on, if they spent enough money they could).

Amongst those ideas are a few Kiwi ones which, on the surface of it, seem pretty good.

I wonder if they'll turn out to be as lucky as the guy from the BNZ.

There's a belief that everyone has a million-dollar idea at least once in their lives. The difference between those who make a million and those who don't is usually down to actually recognising the value of that idea and having it at the right moment in time.

Unfortunately, for the vast majority of us, we may have the idea but the timing and ability to leverage it into cash is never quite there.

In the meantime, let's hope that clever Kiwis continue to have those good ideas and, at least a few of us have the abiilty to turn those clever ideas into large amounts of cash.

Congratulations to the guy from the BNZ. I hope is idea makes him very wealthy and provides us with valuable extra protection against card skimmers.

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