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Bad memory card? Could be a 'ghost'

February 17, 2010 |  6:45 pm

Broken Memory Card Quick, how many memory cards do you own?

Chances are it's at least two or three. SD cards are in phones, cameras, GPS navigators, digital picture frames, TV sets and even toys. They store photos of your kids, the slide deck for your business presentations, e-mail messages and the phone numbers of your friends.

So it’s bad news when we get a bum memory card. But when we do, most of us would grumble, maybe curse a few times, then just toss the card and get a new one.

Not Bunnie Huang. He went on the hunt. And what he found out was slightly disturbing, considering the billions of memory cards out there and the data they store.

The story began in December when Huang was in China for his company, Chumby Industries, overseeing production of its hand-held digital device, the Chumby One. A call came from the floor of the factory, alerting him to a bad batch of Chumbys. Huang found that the devices had one thing in common -- Kingston-branded memory cards all from a single batch.

When Huang tried to exchange the batch, Kingston refused. At $4 to $5 apiece, Huang was sitting on several thousand dollars of scrap, not an amount his San Diego start-up could afford to “sneeze,” he wrote in a blog post detailing his dive into the rabbit hole of Chinese high-tech manufacturing.

His adventure took him to ...

... the SEG electronics bazaar in the Hua Qiang Bei district of Shenzhen, where just about anything with a microprocessor can be found. He recounts one surreal scene of a child and his parents sitting in a stall, cramming loose SD cards into Kingston retail packages. He bought one of those and a few others.

Bunnie Huang Next he ran tests. Before we go further, it must be said that Huang is no ordinary geek. He has a habit of confronting major companies and making them listen to him. For instance, he got the attention of Microsoft when he was the first person to hack into the Xbox after it launched in 2001, greatly embarrassing the technology behemoth. Huang did this while finishing up his doctorate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

So the tests that Huang ran on those chips were the equivalent of high-tech torture, using chemicals to force the memory cards to give up their secrets.

His conclusions: Some of the cards he found were probably produced using the same manufacturing equipment as the certified goods. But the similarities end there.

Huang describes the phenomenon of “ghost shifts” at some factories, where a rogue worker during off hours may run off a few batches of chips using materials that had been rejected as defective by the day shift, or purchased as second-grade parts from legitimate manufacturers such as Samsung or Toshiba.

The goods are then sold to distributors, or to proprietors of thousands of storefront stalls all over the world like the ones in Huan Qiang Bei. Worse, they end up in stores or products.

A spokesman for Kingston, which is based in Fountain Valley, Calif., on Wednesday said his company planned to issue a statement. We will update this post when they release it.

Huang stops short of calling the memory cards sold to him by Kingston dealers as “fake” in his blog, but he points out a number of technical similarities between the Kingston cards and the outright fraudulent goods. "I still hesitate to call Kingston's irregular card a fake -- that's a very strong accusation to make -- but its construction is similar to another card of clearly questionable quality."

There are questions that Huang's post doesn't answer, such as how Kingston ended up with those cards it sold him in the first place. 

But his findings at least were substantial enough for Kingston to change its tune. The company offered to exchange the "irregular" batch for new cards, no further questions asked. Good thing, too. As a company, you really don’t want Huang asking questions.

-- Alex Pham

Photos, from top: A broken memory card; Bunnie Huang. Credits, from top: Yoppy via Flickr; Chumby Industries.

Follow my random thoughts on games, gear and technology on Twitter @AlexPham.

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