Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Cory Doctorow on our movement towards digital alchemy

Cory Doctorow gave a terrific 13 minute talk at a recent O'Reilly conference on how it is time to stop and do something about DRM - a world in which everything [the internet of things] is made of computers is not just one with anti-competitive effects but which is a nightmare for privacy and security.

In ancient times alchemists were a bit like scientists, Cory tells us. They used something like the scientific method to attempt to understand the laws of nature. If they could not reproduce results they blamed it on demons and superstition - the demons changed the rules of nature, the alchemists believed, in order to prevent anyone understanding the universe.  Alchemists also kept what they found secret, rather than sharing and engaging in peer review and efforts to recreate results as scientists do. The result was lots of alchemists finding out for themselves that mercury was poisonous. The enlightenment demonstrated that sharing of knowledge worked in the public good.

O'Reilly have released 3 minutes of the talk freely for sharing via on YouTube

Cory, as ever, has lots of engaging tales to tell. One of the most serious was perhaps that of a security researcher who suffers from diabetes. He discovered a flaw in an insulin pump. The built in wifi would enable a stranger to take control of the pump and kill a diabetic using it from 30 feet away. But he couldn't publish the details because he would be revealing DRM circumvention instructions, a felony in the US, punishable by up to 5 years in jail. He could refuse to use the pump but not tell others why or how it was unsafe.

Other researchers have shown it is possible to take remote control of a Chrysler Jeep via the internet since it has a Sprint network SIM. 1.4 million of these vehicles in the US could be driven from anywhere on the internet, access to acceleration, brakes and steering, all controllable remotely.

MP3 players and smartphones are likely improving long term commercial prospects for hearing aid vendors. But future hearing aids will be computers. General purpose technology in your head but programmed and controlled not by the user but the manufacturer or supplier. They will know what we hear, when we hear it, filter what it doesn't want us to hear or even make us hear things depending on how they are configured. And they will have DRM. As will skyscrapers with seismic dampers that keep them from falling down and smart thermostats that enable power companies to reach into our home and turn the temperature down and stop us turning it up again.

Yet when we make it illegal to crack or circumvent DRM we make it attractive for commercial enterprises to engage in this type of nuisance behaviour, especially if they are making hardware on razor thin margins.

Cory concluded by noting the stuff - DRM - designed in an effort to maximise revenues for the entertainment business, is driving us towards a dystopian future where we will "be Huxleyed into the full Orwell". It's a new age of alchemy, a demon haunted world where we're not allowed to understand the technology and internet of things we live amongst. But do take a small break and listen to the whole talk yourself. It's 13 minutes well spent.

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