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Geeks under fire: War on privacy, freedom and general computation

Cory Doctorow presented a keynote at the 28th Chaos Communication Congress about a coming war where all control over computing devices will be taken from us. The stakes are extremely high, including the freedom, fortune and privacy of the entire human race.

What exactly do you consider to be a computer? If it passes intelligent behavior for the Turing test? Do you consider a 747 to be flying computer? On xkcd forums, it was stated that "747's are big flying Unix hosts" capable of being "patched midflight with a telnet session." Would you consider a device to be a computer if it has hackable and potentially lethal WiFi capabilities such in an insulin pump or pacemaker? Some of these things we surely don't want anyone hacking, or modding, or finding malicious ways to control. Other restrictions are hated by the masses, considered evil, like DRM (Digital Rights Management) sometimes called the Digital Restrictions Management by non-fans. Built-in limitations are often done on the premise of security such as Microsoft's UEFI secure boot which could lock out pirates and potentially lock out Linux lovers. Yet in the future, the day may come when that choice of control is completely removed from the equation, when someone else may have all the control over your software and your information. That issue was addressed at the 28th Chaos Communication Congress (28C3) in Berlin.

We're accustomed to plug and play everything; non-techy people want a product to be 'perfect' out of the box and would never consider tweaking the default settings so long as it works. Companies use software to control what can or cannot be done, since it is often less costly than locked-down hardware. However there are people with the opinion that if you purchased a product and you can't hack its limitations, can't change some of those company control-freak issues, then you don't actually own it. Hackers are often the answer to modding hardware or software so it can do things the manufacturer meant to prevent . . . but there may be a war coming where all control over computing devices is taken from us.

Cory Doctorow presented the 28C3 keynote "The Coming War on General Computation." Here's the description about this coming war:

The last 20 years of Internet policy have been dominated by the copyright war, but the war turns out only to have been a skirmish. The coming century will be dominated by war against the general purpose computer, and the stakes are the freedom, fortune and privacy of the entire human race.

The problem is twofold: first, there is no known general-purpose computer that can execute all the programs we can think of except the naughty ones; second, general-purpose computers have replaced every other device in our world. There are no airplanes, only computers that fly. There are no cars, only computers we sit in. There are no hearing aids, only computers we put in our ears. There are no 3D printers, only computers that drive peripherals. There are no radios, only computers with fast ADCs and DACs and phased-array antennas. Consequently anything you do to "secure" anything with a computer in it ends up undermining the capabilities and security of every other corner of modern human society.

I highly recommend you either watch the video or read the transcription by Joshua Wise on github, because Doctorow makes some very interesting points about the coming war on general computation, ranging from human rights, civil liberties and even covert surveillance. He said, "And on the network side, attempts to make a network that can't be used for copyright infringement always converges with the surveillance measures that we know from repressive governments. So, SOPA, the U.S. Stop Online Piracy Act, bans tools like DNSSec because they can be used to defeat DNS blocking measures. And it blocks tools like Tor, because they can be used to circumvent IP blocking measures. In fact, the proponents of SOPA, the Motion Picture Association of America, circulated a memo, citing research that SOPA would probably work, because it uses the same measures as are used in Syria, China, and Uzbekistan, and they argued that these measures are effective in those countries, and so they would work in America, too!"

Under the guise of 'lawful intercept', the government deploys covert mass surveillance capable of monitoring a hundred thousand targets. As Doctorow said, "The latest generation of lawful intercept technology can covertly operate cameras, mics, and GPSes on PCs, tablets, and mobile devices.... Freedom in the future will require us to have the capacity to monitor our devices and set meaningful policy on them, to examine and terminate the processes that run on them, to maintain them as honest servants to our will, and not as traitors and spies working for criminals, thugs, and control freaks."

While Doctorow was talking about computing, there's other worrisome factors like the broad interpretation of CFAA in which the Justice Department believes you might be a felon for "routine and entirely innocent conduct such as visiting a website, clicking on a hyperlink, or opening an e-mail." From SOPA to CFAA changes, our freedom and civil liberties are increasingly endangered; our Internet is becoming a sadly oppressed place where geeks are censored and spied upon a little more each day based the agendas of governments, of corporations and of the MPAA. The "war" is not coming, it's here.

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