Our Machines, Ourselves

From TPM Reader JO

Your discussion of gun and non-gun people, and Walter Kirn’s piece, have made me ponder and connect two things that have been in the back of my mind for a long time: First, there are computer and non-computer people. Second, a case can be made that computers are weapons, and I wonder why I haven’t read anything ever that follows from this point of view.

By “computer people”, I don’t mean people who are comfortable using computers and other digital devices. I’m talking about a subset, the people who have a deep understanding of how computers work, and how to make them do their bidding. This includes people writing any kind of software, from the operating system on up, and also “hackers” (for various definitions of the term), who might not write software, but understand it deeply, and are comfortable with the idea of finding some cool open-source program, downloading it, installing it, configuring it and running it. The software might be for completely innocuous purposes — setting up a web server, running a photo gallery, etc., but also for purposes ranging from ripping DVDs, to cracking passwords, participating in DDoS attacks, and infiltrating systems.

Just as gun people grow up with guns, are completely comfortable with them, and use them as tools or toys, computer people are comfortable using computers almost as an extension of their minds, in ways that mere consumers of computer technology are not.

I’m a computer person. I’m 56, have always been fascinated with computers, was lucky enough to have access to a computer in high school, earned a PhD in computer science, and have worked in software startup companies for many years. I can see a fight over computer regulation coming, that is similar to the current gun control debate. It worries me because this time they’ll be coming after my toys and livelihood.

The DeCSS incident of a few years ago was an initial skirmish. DeCSS is a program for decrypting DVD content, based on information obtained by reverse engineering. (Later, thanks to DeCSS, it was discovered that the DVD encryption is so weak that the keys can easily obtained by low levels of brute force.) One of the authors of DeCSS was hounded by the legal system in his home country (Norway) for several years. WIPO Copyright Treaty laws, such as DMCA, prohibit the distribution of software like DeCSS. But this is unworkable. The tools needed to create, transmit and use DeCSS are not illegal. Banning software (a.k.a. a sequence pattern of 1s and 0s, a.k.a. certain numbers) is obviously unenforceable.

So we have powerful entities threatened by computer technology, weak entities implementing these threats (Anonymous, Wikileaks, random hackers), and the beginning of ineffectual regulation to do something about the threats. The temptation to step up the level of regulation and do something/anything is going to be enormous.

The software itself cannot be controlled. Even the most intellectually challenged or dishonest politician can’t miss that fact. I think the most likely point of attack is the regulation of users of software development tools, like C compilers and network protocol analyzers. I can easily imagine some idiot congressman deciding that it would be a good idea to require licenses for anyone who wants to use such tools, require registration, background checks, etc.

And then you have a situation very much like the current gun control debate. On one side you will have mostly corporate and government interests who would love to see the neckbeards controlled better. There could be some popular support too, it depends on how directly black-hat hackers impact everyday life. For example, if an Anonymous-like group caused a major blackout, or knocked out the credit card processing infrastructure for a couple of days, lots of people would sit up and take notice. On the other side you will have computer people who will be in absolute despair that their freedom to tinker and invent is being taken away. And that won’t be any more comprehensible to the general public than the despair of gun owners, (once any new regulations pass), is to me.

This passage from the Kirn piece really resonated for me:

When I shoot at the range, I don’t feel personally powerful but like the custodian of something powerful. I feel like a successful disciplinarian of something radically alien and potent. Analyze this sensation all you want; you still can’t make it go away. But that’s the primitive, underlying fear, of course, which the likes of LaPierre exploit: the fear that it will be curtailed, suppressed, prohibited–perhaps not any time soon, but ultimately.

That exactly captures my relationship with computers, and also describes why I am so concerned about the coming regulation of computers. It may be really unlikely right now, but the signs are there, and it would be devastating to me, personally, even though I have never done anything remotely illegal, (except download the occasional TV show).