I'm writing a story set in our own future1, where networked devices are even more ubiquitous -- and more capable -- than smartphones today. Part of the story, however, hinges on the main character putting a "memory chip" into her phone, which hijacks her phone to enable a secondary character -- ironically an ally -- to take over her phone's functions and communicate securely with her while also bugging her and attempting to backtrack the secure communications of an adversary also communicating via this phone.

It occurred to me, however, that already today we seem to be witnessing the demise of removable media devices. While I can see them remaining for a long time yet for backups, a lot of us can go weeks without using any form of removable media. It's even becoming less common for our smartphones to have slots for flash cards as we rely more and more on storing media in "the cloud" instead, sharing links or even entire files via email or other entirely-online means.

This is a world where the internet is reliable, fast, and ever-present; at least insofar as the scope of this story is concerned, everyone has high-speed access.

A potential factor in play is that my MC is a cop, though I'm not sure if that would really matter; my first thought would be that it could potentially be a more secure method of handling sensitive data, but solid encryption, isolated networks, and similar defenses can make a network plenty secure for the level of police work she's involved in.

I could of course rewrite the method of the hijack to something else, but I like this method as it creates a frightening moment when, after she inserts it into her primary phone, a message appears on the screen telling her to use her other phone -- the one her blackmailer provided to her for secure communications.

What plausible reasons might there be for networked devices in a highly interconnected future society to still retain near-ubiquitous access to some form of physical "memory chip"?

1 There is actually some room for anachronisms here, in that the setting is in fact post-post-apocalypse: A major cataclysm in our near future all but entirely wiped out civilization, plunging the survivors into an almost Mad Max-esque hellscape. This story is set a few centuries (give or take, haven't worked out a plausible timeline just yet -- might be a future question on that) after that, with civilization having re-emerged and advanced rapidly thanks to re-discovering our "lost tech" and building on that.

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    $\begingroup$ Does it need to be ubiquitous? There's a lot of reasons to have it around, but not necessarily with the universality of, say, a modern SD card. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Jan 25, 2016 at 22:59
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    $\begingroup$ @CortAmmon It needs to be "ubiquitous" in the sense that no one should be at all surprised that a "memory chip" can be plugged in to both phones the MC carries. Maybe not everyone necessarily uses them, but enough of the population should even incidentally have that capability in many of their devices. $\endgroup$
    – Kromey
    Commented Jan 25, 2016 at 23:07
  • $\begingroup$ Why does the title of your question mention physics cal media? I mean, you don't mention books, letters, magazines or anything like that in your question once. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 26, 2016 at 1:01
  • $\begingroup$ @XandarTheZenon "Physical media" in the sense of my setting's analogue of the flash drive: A physical device that holds data and is carried around e.g. in one's pocket. Other examples of similar physical media include CDs, DVDs, Blu-Ray, floppy disks, portable hard drives, flash cards. Nothing in the term requires it be an analog medium. $\endgroup$
    – Kromey
    Commented Jan 26, 2016 at 2:18
  • $\begingroup$ Ok, it's just my poor understanding of your terms. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 26, 2016 at 2:54

9 Answers 9


Cameras still use media. While a smartphone might save pictures to the cloud, even a low-end machine sold as a camera uses memory cards. The Sony α6000 shoots 10 frames per second with 25 MB per (raw) exposure, which means that you will not only greatly exceed bandwidth availability but will chew through many gigabytes of memory cards.

At an "event", the wireless bandwidth may be seriously overcommitted by the large crowd all trying to use it at the same time.

So, a smartphone-based device might be specialized for journalism. It can record stills, video, and audio and take notes, at high bandwidth production and still operate while being cut off from the network. When you snap a photo at a concert you want the file to save, immediately, not jam up while trying to get through to the server.

It is important that the chip be easily swappable so it can be changed when full and possibly sent by courier to another user, whether it be an editor in a professional situation, or just so the wireless transfer of backlogged data doesn't take a ridiculously long time.

Removable cards will be a feature for pros, and prosumer usage. Perhaps many dSLR users today, non-professionals, don't remove the memory card when they get home but trigger a wireless transfer while recharging and putting things away. But I don't see the feature of an easily accessible card slot going away.

Maybe a high-end smart device that's more phone than camera will have a memory card slot that can be swapped without cutting power and rebooting though not especially easy to access. That is, peel the shell open after removing from the case, rather than having a handy door.

You can lampshade it by explaining to the receiver that yes the device does have a place to put cards, as high-end devices will.

media in general

I store my photos, work, backups, etc. on a local file server. Enterprise storage locations exist and when you use the "cloud" that's where it is really stored physically. So media exists even if you don't use it directly normally.

A bare HDD is not meant to be a removable media unit. But it is! I buy bare drives and use a dock in the manner of a cartridge reader. It's a sealed box with connectors for power and data. A "card" meant to be used as removable media is exactly the same thing. With easy to use connectors, the only difference between "media" and internal storage units is the durability and care needed for handling. A bare drive might not like even being placed on a hard table in a less-than-gentle manner, but travel drives put shock absorbing material in a case around it and adapts the manner of connecting.

So if media exists even if only for use in the cloud-based storage system, it will be possible to adapt it to portable use as a secondary market.

If devices have no provision for physical media or connections at all, you can still have a separate little box running owncloud with a personal networking protocol. So it doesn't plug in physically, but you still have a little box that must touch-to-pair and then remain within 10 meters to use. The pairing process gives you the plug-in event to acknowledge in the story.

Same thing as a card. Just wireless.

It overcomes the media-free nature and is exactly what solutions would emerge for this need.

Such a box doesn't have to be orders of magnitude larger than a phone, e.g. holding a 3.5" drive. There will be local storage designed for tablets and laptop-equivalents, with more substantial storage size than the casual phone-like device. That can be packaged with the most minimal mobile-device chip (basically a speck) and battery to form a personal cloud server.

If the purpose of the product — which is developed separately from any phone — is for portability and hand-off-ability rather than capacity, it might be very small. It might be as small as a data "card" and serve the same purpose, but be wireless and not need any slot!

It could work with a phone case to hold it close without losing it, and keep it powered. This would be after-market, not affect the phone design but overcome it, and is something a hobbiest could hack together today. The tiny wireless server is "internet of things" brain.

Such products will exist, no doubt. Even if niche or unusual, or even customized, they could get one ideally suited for their purpose.

The future you describe, besides being media-free, also provides for highly customizable products. Even today we have at-home surface mount circuit board makers and 3D printers. So, even without a specific hobby industry for emerging "iot", imagine someone salvages a chip from a "thing" and adds a storage chip and programs it with encryption etc. He cobbles together a personal cloud server and it's the size of a matchbox.

An advantage to this is that it's not limited to just memory. It could contain special functions that you wanted, as hardware.

..."OK, how do I install it?"

She was expecting to be told a URL for a private package store, for an app not found on the vendor-approved store. Most likely a QR code displayed on Alice's screen, or even a bump-file transfer but that generally can't copy apps. Betty never installed any app that wasn't from the official "store" listing, so she wasn't sure what would happen next.

However, Betty was definitely not expecting to be handed the app in a little box! How silly, like a joke a little kid would make, crossing the lines between cyberspace and the physical world.

On second glance, the package — about the size of a matchbook— bore the livery of a popular game company. "Is that a game booster? I've never used one" Boosters were for young men with too much testosterone who played first-person shooters and wanted life-like fidelity in rendering huge multiplayer meelies. It made the phone or tablet run faster and have better graphics; that's all she knew. Some were for specific games and were tied with company-specific features. Maybe that's the idea.

Indeed, Alice explained, "Connect your phone to this. The label is just a disguise: it's been reprogrammed to [[whatever she was talking about]]. It holds your secret files on a personal cloud server and you connect only over the personal peripheral network [[bluetooth? ]], so the files are never seen on the open network between devices. It also implements [[special features]] she added with a wry grin.

Betty turned it over in her hand and looked it over, spotting the pairing icon on the top of one of the small faces. "Stick a toothpick in that hole", over the icon, Alice indicated, "and then touch the pairing spots together." She initiated pairing the devices, and Alice then typed a ridiculously long password on Betty's phone and worked the toothpick again with what appeared to be another secret code. The icon on the "booster" flashed green, and an app-install acceptance window appeared on Betty's screen.

Alice had a seemingly cryptic smile that she tried to hide. "Now it will work only on your phone. If anyone else tries to pair with it, your saved files will be hidden as if nothing was saved on it; it will say it was factory-reset and wiped, but really they are safe and will return when you re-pair it with this device.

Betty hoped she didn't have to replace her phone while this was going on; certainly Alice had that covered too. But she didn't bring it up; this was already too complicated. But she did need to know: "What about power?"

"Use the same universal charging pad as all your other devices," said Alice as if it was perfectly obvious. Indeed, the charging logo icon was embossed in one of the faces of the "booster". Betty didn't have any other fancy devices; an earpiece never appealed to her and people she knew kept losing them anyway. "I just have the stick-on dot that came with the phone."

"Well, you'll have to go buy one. The charge will only last a day or two, so don't put it off." Betty, impatient with the un-geekiness of her friend, gestured towards a row of vending machines.


Besides the advantages of sneakernets (i.e. a moving car full of DVD's has more effective bandwidth than a smartphone), the main reason to have physical media is security.

If I want to make sure that no one can access my data on the cloud, I'm not going to put it there. OTOH, I still need access to my data, so it has to be stored somewhere. Putting it on removable media like a DVD, flash drive or sim card gives me portability, and long term security (no one "accidentally" crashing the cloud will read or erase my data).

However, there are some things to think about when doing this:

a. Your media needs to be stored securely. Having someone steal your DVD, or accidentally scratching it because you tossed it in the drawer isn't going to make your life easier.

b. You need real secure media, in the sense that it must remain readable over time. Flash drives and sim cards degrade over multiple read/write cycles.

c. There will be latency issues in downloading stuff from your portable media, compared to downloading from a server on the cloud.

d. Your systems must remain compatible. The data you carefully stored on a ZIP drive isn't going to do you much good today.

OTOH, if you have made a conscious decision to use exotic media like ZIP drives, Betamax or DAT digital tape, then you have the advantage of security in the sense that few people will have the ability to read it. Corporate spies will be annoyed, and only high level organizations like the NSA probably have the resources for their technical sections to be adept at cracking these sorts of formats.

Ironically, the best secure media might just be a piece of paper with some sort of cypher. It won't lose power, isn't going to become obsolete and if you use something like a book cypher, probably not readable by anyone who does not have the appropriate key.

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    $\begingroup$ OTOH the last time I checked, The Ohio State University computer center still had both card and (paper) tape readers. Granted I last check before Y2K but I imagine a number of large data centers keep old readers around. I still have access to operational old low & high density floppy drive hardware. I don't normally put it in any of my computers but when I find stashes of my old work, I read any disks that still work in and then throw them away. $\endgroup$
    – Jim2B
    Commented Jan 26, 2016 at 3:44
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    $\begingroup$ Actually, DAT is still being developed, although I believe LTO is more common than DAT DDS for data storage. LTO certainly has a data density advantage at a native 6 TB per cartridge for LTO-7 (which is rather new, but even LTO-6 can do 2.5 TB per cartridge) compared to even the planned DAT DDS Gen 8 at only about 300 GB native per cartridge. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Commented Jan 26, 2016 at 8:21
  • $\begingroup$ I think there's something wrong with your paragraph on latency. Surely retrieving data from a physical media in or connected to your device should result in less latency, not more? $\endgroup$
    – Burki
    Commented Jan 26, 2016 at 16:22
  • $\begingroup$ I still have zip drive reader and an old DAT somewhere... $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Commented Jan 26, 2016 at 16:30
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    $\begingroup$ See also: what-if.xkcd.com/31 $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 26, 2016 at 16:54

Well, whatever the broadband rate X might be, the physical storage medium might hold $(10,000\times X)^2$ of information, making it unwieldy to transfer by streaming connection in a reasonable time.

Now as to why it is being used, it could contain something very personally valuable, like an encrypted blockchain hash of your personal wallet, or a full upload copy of your domestic partner's latest mindstate.

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    $\begingroup$ Exactly today a good internet connection is 100s Megbits/second a good hard drive is a few terabytes. So you could spend 22 hours downloading a terabyte file or just overnight ship a hard drive. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 26, 2016 at 0:01

First some background: There are three primary methods for doing security that already exist:

  1. Something you know. Passwords, pins, usernames.

  2. Something you have. Your phone, a key, a wireless fob.

  3. Something you are. Biometric scanners, visual verification.

Good security relies on using more then one method.

In the future, assuming near infinite network bandwidth and cloud storage, there might still be some expectation of privacy for your files. A password works, but it is clearly a weak solution, since it is only one of the three categories of security. Instead, there would be devices with unique hardware chips that can encode and decode the cloud files.

In public key cryptography, you encrypt a file with a public key, and then it can only be decrypted by someone with a private key. So your device isn't a storage device, as much as a "key" for accessing the data on the internet. Not a memory card, but a memory access card.

  • $\begingroup$ I'd picture a "touch memory" device for that. It doesn't need to be inserted, probably is not kept permanently in the device, and doesn't need a huge bandwidth. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Commented Jan 31, 2016 at 22:05

“Never underestimate the bandwidth of a station wagon loaded with floppy disks racing down the highway.” — networking adage

Portable media (probably a better term than physical media, which gets misconstrued as writing/carving/painting) transfers files very fast. It may be ubiquitous if you need to move very large things — say, the AI cores. The brain databases of AIs are likely very large, even for predicted future bandwidth (see lots of other questions on that topic on WB). That strikes me as the most likely reason in our future society that keep such media in vogue.


Encryption doesn't mean much. As long as humans are involved there will always be a weak link (a human), and so there's always a reason to not trust the network.

You keep data offline to protect it from being stolen, but also to protect it from being edited. Chain of custody, and all that.

Also, you may need to go off the grid. Any network connection might be seen as a liability (and, in fact, with modern society becoming totally dependent on technology, unplugging might render you almost completely invisible in any practical way). In that case you need a good offline store to make up for your own dependence on the network.

Of course, in such a situation offline storage might be associated with subversives. Possibly being prohibited.

In fact, going back to chain of custody; it may be a legal anachronism. Historical weaknesses which have long since been eliminated (HAH! Right!) leave the law in a state that requires offline storage for evidence to be admissible.


Bandwidth and latency.


If areas of your world are sparsely populated, there is a chance, that there are areas with no- service or very low bandwidth. (Just slow satellite connections for instance.) It would render network storage somewhat useless. Any lower-than-realtime storage for media is a pain in the @ss for modern people. (Just imagine if you had to wait - even minutes - until a movie or photo you took loads.)


If your world has space colonies (like on the moon or mars, not like in the stars), the latency of using cloud storage located on another stellar object could mean minutes, which is also unacceptable for modern people.

  • $\begingroup$ So phones will have some local storage. But will it be removable in a convenient manner, to transport as loose media and insert into another device? $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Commented Jan 26, 2016 at 19:41

You are a cyberpunk in a dystopian not-so-far away future. You have important information about the corruption of the government and would like to spread that information.

The moment you look at the file or send it over the internet, the government will be informed and a few minutes later a SWAT team would burst through your door and arrest you.

What do you do?

Your only option is to disconnect your computer from the internet, make as many copies of it as you can on physical medium (hopefully you can still find a file copier program which works without having to rely on TheCloud™), destroy that computer and spread these copies.

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    $\begingroup$ Not too long ago when backdoor and government approval was a looming issue, there wa *cyper saber". Just like a Jedi is expected to build his own light-saber, the cyber-saber was an instruction on how to implement encryption using RC4, from scratch. You could write code from the published pseudocode or review and build C from source, knowing it was free from hidden features. A line of Perl fits on a tee-shirt! Good encryption is possible for everyone, we showed already. Don't forget that in your future. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Commented Jan 26, 2016 at 19:31
  • $\begingroup$ Key Escrow on phones? Gee, sounds like 1993. Use my product instead; it uses a FIPS certified build of libcrypt. Does anybody buy handsets like that for phones anymore, really? $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Commented Jan 26, 2016 at 19:37
  • $\begingroup$ Hmm, that's not an answer. It just re-asserts the OP's point of using "media" rather than the cloud. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Commented Jan 26, 2016 at 19:39

Law Enforcement Needs (Wants) Hacker Grade Products

There is a wide range of hardware out there that is specifically designed for footprinting and hacking. One product in particular that comes to mind is a Pwnie Express: A kind of cellphone which uses all sorts of modified hardware and software to make it easy to map out local networks and hack them. Although this product is useful for hackers, the 3 biggest consumers of such phones are actually cyber security firms, law enforcement, and the military.

For example, if a police officer is about to enter a building, things they may want to do first is hack into the local network to:

  • Gain access to security and IoT cameras to assess threats.
  • Disable user access to devices to prevent the criminals from wiping evidence or calling for help.
  • Gain access to social media and personal communications to profile the perpetrators/witnesses.
  • Gain access to unencrypted data that the suspect's cloud provider would only have encrypted versions of.
  • Identify the presence of suspicious technologies on the premises.
  • Establish probable cause if they don't already have a warrant.
  • Disable household robots or automated defenses (if these are a thing in your setting).
  • Make devices emit loud, ultrasonic noises to incapacitate guard dogs.
  • Turn an IoT device on/off to try to lure a person to where you want them before entering, or to clear a shot for a sniper.

While all of these uses are rare in today's world, in the future, these could all be part of a cop's standard training. Cops trained in basic cyber warfare would be so much more effective that an officer's Pwnie could become as iconic of a piece of police equipment as 9mm handguns, handcuffs, and body cams are today.

What does this have to do with removable media?

The big drawback of hacker grade products is that they host tons of software that any cloud provider would immediately identify as malware and block. So, one way or another, a hacker's phone NEEDS local storage and processing where the user can turn off all those annoying security features and do all the sketchy things a cloud provider would never let you get away with.

As for the removable media specifically, that comes down to being able to control read-write access at a hardware level. Because hacker phones need to side-step so many security features just to work, they themselves tend to be really easy to hack. So, if you have a bunch of read-only applications installed on removable cards, it minimizes the threat of a police Pwnie getting hacked or detected when not in active use.

Bonus Points: Software purposed Hardware.

Furthermore, there is currently a push away from all-purpose chip sets. Different kinds of drives and processors can do certain kinds of computations orders of magnitude more efficiently than others; so, if you have one program that performs complex linear computations and another that is heavy on the neural net computations, then packing those programs into non-identical chip sets that were designed by compiler AIs just to run that program at maximum efficiency could in some cases make those programs run hundreds of times better than trying to run it on universal, programmable hardware. Since your Pwnies need to do process heavy tasks on a generally limited mobile device, these chips could each be optimized to run thier programs giving you what feels like server grade power in your hand-held device.


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