I think I’ve settled down enough from the hectic exercise of publishing The Francesians to lift my head up and post about something else. How about nefarious cheats?
Cory Doctorow opens his article, Demon-Haunted World, with “Cheating is a given.” That sounds cynical, until you think about it. When corporations are said to be responsible only to their shareholders, and their directors pander to those shareholders to protect their bloated incomes, it becomes less cynical and more clear-eyed.
what happens when the things you own start to cheat you? The most famous version of this is Volkswagen’s Dieselgate scandal, which has cost the company billions (and counting): Volkswagen engineered several models of its diesel vehicles to detect when the engine was undergoing emissions testing and to tilt the engines’ performance in favor of low emissions
In 2015, HP pushed a fake security update to millions of Officejet owners, which showed up as a routine, ‘‘You must update your software’’ notification on their printers’ screens. Running that update installed a new, secret feature in your printer, with a long fuse. After six months’ wait, the infected printers all checked to see whether their ink cartridges had been refilled, or manufactured by third parties, and to refuse to print with any ink that HP hadn’t given its corporate blessing to.
The mobile phone industry has long been at war with its customers. When phones were controlled primarily by carriers, they were designed to prevent customers from changing networks without buying a new phone, raising the cost on taking your business elsewhere.
What began with printers and spread to phones is coming to everything: this kind of technology has proliferated to smart thermostats (no apps that let you turn your AC cooler when the power company dials it up a couple degrees), tractors (no buying your parts from third-party companies), cars (no taking your GM to an independent mechanic), and many categories besides.
In the face of all that, it’s a good thing we can audit the software and see whether it’s trying to cheat us, isn’t it? Well, it would be if the software was open, but it’s not. It’s proprietary software and it has all kinds of protections in place to prevent that. In addition, it has the government creating laws that make it a crime to even try.
What’s worse, 20th century law puts its thumb on the scales for these 21st century demons. The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (1986) makes it a crime, with jail-time, to violate a company’s terms of service … Then there’s section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (1998), which makes it a felony to bypass the software controls access to a copyrighted work.
We have some allies. I’ve written before on the work of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and iFixit. These people and others work tirelessly to expose and counter the abuses of cheating corporations and bad laws. They need to because the cheating corporations work tirelessly to get bad laws enacted and to find ever more ways to cheat their customers, from farmers who aren’t allowed to fix their own tractors to cars that clean up their act when they’re in an inspection facility. Last word to Cory Doctorow.
Making better computers won’t solve the world’s problems, but none of the world’s problems are ours to solve for so long as the computers we rely on are sneaking around behind our backs, treating us as their enemies.