While one consultant’s social experiment in generosity became another programmer’s experiment in the re-allocation (and re-valuation) of collective funding, what are the security implications?
We were alerted (thank you, M. Ristori) to the unfortunate fact that Jonathan’s Card — mobile application consultant Jonathan Stark‘s experiment in human generosity, digital currency and mobile payments — has been forced by Starbucks to shut down after one programmer (Sam Odio) demonstrated just how accessible funding of a ‘shared’ account is, by writing a script that alerted him as to when a substantial donation was made. This allowed Odio to access and re-deploy the funds to another account. He ultimately decided to ‘sell’ the money he transferred out of Jonathan’s Card as a $500 card on eBay, with the intent that proceeds would ultimately be donated to Save the Children.
In essence, by ‘redirecting’ contributors’ money from their intended account (and from the purpose of its collectively generous benefit), Odio’s version of an ‘experiment’ (determining if people will bid up the price of his card – consisting of other people’s money, redirected for a different purpose than originally intended) contributed to Stark’s card’s shutdown by encroaching on card account security (and alarming Starbucks).
Of course, some of us just can’t let sleeping dogs lie. Talk About Design alerted us to their proactive desire to revisit and continue Stark’s experiment. In this iteration, rather than releasing an API for open, transparent tracking of the card’s balance, Talk About Design will post updates to the balance – and invite contributors to donate – while posting the balance and barcode on their site. According to Talk About Design:
After learning about Jonathan’s Card, we started providing you with live balance updates and ability to donate. Sadly due to one person’s greed, Starbucks was forced to shut down Jonathan’s Card. Well it’s not over folks. My guess is that Jonathan made a big mistake by releasing API to keep track of a card’s balance. We will do no such thing. Currently we are working on processing this data on our end and then posting the results here.
Rather than engage in a battle of who’s right and wrong and whose intentions are pure vs. not, we take a more practical view and wonder not only what these experiments say about human generosity, but also what they say about the security of financial transactions online. After all, if a programmer can find a loophole based on a photograph of a barcode (and money collectively donated to that single card/account), how simple might it be to make a photograph of any barcode or account information essentially transactional to the public?