Cory Doctorow: tyranny, freedom and cargo cult security

We're sleep walking into a surveillance state in the name of protecting creators' rights. We must fight this as a matter of principle - or we will be enslaved, warns Cory Doctorow.

WARNING: Liveblogging – prone to error and inaccuracy. Will be updated/improved over the next 48 hours.

The world is made of networked computers. When you get into a car these days you’re getting into a networked computer heading down the autobahn. A plane is a fancy aluminium case around a Sun Solaris workstation. Take the computers out of a building and they’ll become uninhabitable pretty quickly.

All of us have logged enough punishing earbud hours that we’ll probably need a hearing aid one day. It’ll be a little computer which will hear what we hear, and can share that information.

We need to get computers right.

The computer regulation experiment

We’ve been running an experiment in achieving policy goals by regulating computers by 15 years now: I’m talking about copyright laws. In the 1980s we put all sorts of protection on software. Despite all the various methods tried, none of it worked. It was founded on an impossibility. The idea was that you were handed some media scrambled, and your player would have the keys to unscramble it. Then they crossed their fingers that no-one got hold of the key. It was just a cargo cult appearance of security.

In modern PGP-style security, you have two trusted parties who share a key, so can exchange messages. As long as no-one else gets that key, no-one else can read the messages. In the other world, it’s Bob and Alice, and Bob doesn’t trust Alice, so he buries the key in her player. So it’s Bob versus the cleverest Alice out there. And the cleverest Alice will get that key out. This is wishful thinking, not security.

So, the copies that Alice breaks can spread quickly. The unbroken copies can’t. Guess which becomes the bigger ecosystem?

The issues of creators making a living are beside the point for the majority of people. Even if it worked every time, we should oppose it on principle. You can’t examine technology without examining policy.

The wicked workings of WIPA

This brings us to the UN’s WIPA. It told member states to make it illegal to do anything to break the Bob/Alice model of security. Under these incredibly lax rules, anyone can censor any webpage just by pointing at it and saying that it violates their copyright. There are no penalties for lying.

In 1996 DVDs hit the stores for the first time. Buy €1000 of CDs and DVD, stick them in a vault then, and take them out now. The CDs have actually increased in value – you can rip them and do all sorts of things to the digital file results. 18 years on, all you can do with DVDs is watch them – the same thing you could do back then. It’s illegal to rip the DVD – because you break the DRM.

CDs gush value. DVDs drip the value out one step at a time. If you make a DVD piece of tech, you have to make it non-user modifiable. A system that can modified by the user will never distrust the user. Companies often distrust the value of an innovation – while other companies can see a way of doing it. Also, user groups want to modify things – especially the disabled. We’re all only temporarily abled. If we live long enough, well eventually lose some ability.

When your computer judges you

DRM also kills transparency. To make it work, you have to have an anti-feature that makes your computer disobey you. It has to have a HAL9000 program lurking in the background watching for illegal actions. That makes an adversarial relationship between the user and the computer designer.

Sony shipped CDs that modified your PC to install a program that tried to kill CD copying – and opened a hole that virus writers could use. Many security companies had known about this, but had not talked about it. Why? They were afraid of falling foul of the laws preventing cracking DRM. The mechanism of DRM had to be secret. You needed secrecy about secrecy to make it work.

Secrecy about secrecy is a poison. It rots society from within. We have discovered through Edward Snowdon that the NSA and GCHQ spend millions a year trying to subvert computer security. Our network infrastructure has been compromised for the spooks – and the crooks are taking advantage of that.

Information doesn’t want to be free. It wants not to be anthropomorphised. But people want to be free. And the computers we get into have the power to liberate us – or enslave us.

The subtle sickness of spyware

A laptop rental company in the US was caught using laptop recovery software to spy on its users recreationally. They were told to stop – unless they put it in the small print of the user agreement. This has spread into all sorts of environments.

Computers in our bodies is not science fiction. A recent report showed how vulnerable medical tech is to hacking. Think about that.

Everyone with a problem wants to solve it by breaking our computers. We know how to make Turing Complete computers – ones that can run any code that can be compiled. We don’t know how to make computers that are Turing Complete minus one – the one the government doesn’t want us to run. The closest we can get is spyware.

We have a thousand battles over DRM coming. And we can resist the politicians and their simplistic idea of computer science. We’re told it’s a battle between extremism and freedom. But Snowdon has shown it’s a battle between freedom and enslavement. If you want to enslave us to prevent terrorist attacks, you are on the wrong side of history.

Fight for your digital freedom

How urgent is the project of using technology to set us free? It’s as urgent as it gets.

Winning a free, fair world for his daughter is more important than taking her to Disneyland Paris or buying her nice clothes. He makes his living with writing, but rejects DRM. He can still make a good living.

There is no way for us fight oppression without networks and devices, so we must build freedom into them. We can do cryptography so well now that it can never be broken. We can seize the means to liberate the planet, and we must do so.