August 03, 2012
Cory Doctorow on the Century of War Against Your Computer
Cory Doctorow spoke this week at the LONG NOW Foundation. The topic? A provocative one entitled: The coming century of war against your computer.
The war against computer freedom will just keep escalating, Doctorow contends. The copyright wars, net neutrality, and SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) were early samples of what is to come. Victories in those battles were temporary.
Conflict in the decades ahead will feature ever higher stakes, more convoluted issues, and far more powerful technology. The debate is about how civilization decides to conduct itself and in whose interests.
Stewart Brand's fabulous summary of the event below where Doctorow kicked things off by framing the issue this way: “Computers are everywhere. They are now something we put our whole bodies into---airplanes, cars---and something we put into our bodies---pacemakers, cochlear implants. They HAVE to be trustworthy.“
Sometimes humans are not so trustworthy, and programs may override you: “I can’t let you do that, Dave.” (Reference to the self-protective insane computer Hal in Kubrick’s film “2001.” That time the human was more trustworthy than the computer.) Who decides who can override whom?
The core issues for Doctorow come down to Human Rights versus Property Rights, Lockdown versus Certainty, and Owners versus mere Users.
Apple computers such as the iPhone are locked down---it lets you run only what Apple trusts. Android phones let you run only what you trust. Doctorow has changed his mind in favor of a foundational computer device call the “Trusted Platform Module” (TPM) which provides secure crypto, remote attestation, and sealed storage. He sees it as a crucial “nub of secure certainty” in your machine.
If it’s your machine, you rule it. It‘s a Human Right: your computer should not be overridable. And a Property Right: “you own what you buy, even if it what you do with it pisses off the vendor.” That’s clear when the Owner and the User are the same person. What about when they’re not?
There are systems where we really want the authorities to rule---airplanes, nuclear reactors, probably self-driving cars (“as a species we are terrible drivers.”) The firmware in those machines should be inviolable by users and outside attackers. But the power of Owners over Users can be deeply troubling, such as in matters of surveillance.
There are powers that want full data on what Users are up to---governments, companies, schools, parents. Behind your company computer is the IT department and the people they report to. They want to know all about your email and your web activities, and there is reason for that. But we need to contemplate the “total and terrifying power of Owners over Users.”
Recognizing that we are necessarily transitory Users of many systems, such as everything involving Cloud computing or storage, Doctorow favors keeping your own box with its own processors and storage. He strongly favors the democratization and wide distribution of expertise. As a Fellow of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (who co-sponsored the talk) he supports public defense of freedom in every sort of digital rights issue.
“The potential for abuse in the computer world is large,” Doctorow concluded. “It will keep getting larger.”
For more information on future LONG NOW Seminars in San Francisco, visit their site. They bring one amazing speaker after another to speak, so it's worth attending one if you haven't and live in California or don't live closeby but can plan a trip around one of their upcoming events.
Photo credit: Oreillynet.com.
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