Laws and sausages

Summary:Rupert Goodwins: The combination of law and commercially dictated security measures is accelerating us towards a dangerously closed world

Traditionally, there are two things where you don't want to know how they're made: laws and sausages. Now modern technology brings us a third: secure computing. The combination of that and legislation is proving exceptionally hard to swallow.

These are worrying times for anyone who feels that between freedom and restriction, restriction is the bigger threat to progress. Increasingly, we've seen stories about American legislation -- most often the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) -- preventing researchers into cryptography from publishing their work, and sometimes stopping them from researching altogether.

Let's take some stories from this week alone. MIT student Andrew Huang lost his publisher for "Hacking the X-Box", a book detailing how he'd found out the flaws in the Microsoft console, because publishing similar information on the Web had landed one chap in gaol. Another pair of students were banned from giving a talk about vulnerabilities in a university electronic transactions system -- the makers of the system got the court order to prevent the lecture.

Most worryingly, researcher Niels Provos from the University of Michigan has moved all his research documents and software to a server in the Netherlands. He works in steganography -- the art and science of hiding information in other information -- and is also known for creating honeypots, fake networks of computers that attract hackers. Both of these areas of interest are now illegal in Michigan, under brand new (and practically undiscussed) state law that prohibits software or hardware that 'conceals the existence or source of any electronic communication'. The same law prohibits connecting devices to communications services without the express permission of the service provider.

What does this mean? It means that you can't hang a wireless gateway on your cable modem. You can't plug so much as a video recorder into your cable TV. You can't even plug in a computer -- unless your service provider says so. We're right back in the pre-privatisation days of the General Post Office, when all you could do with your telephone line was plug your GPO telephone in and say thank you: how badly does this affect our rights to use and expand the Internet?

Topics: Tech Industry


Rupert has worked at ZDNet UK, IT Week, PC Magazine, Computer Life, Mac User, Alfa Systems, Amstrad, Sinclair, Micronet 800, Marconi Space and Defence Systems, and a dodgy TV repair shop in the back streets of Plymouth. He can still swap out a gassy PL509 with the best of 'em. If you want to promote your company or product, fine -- but pl... Full Bio

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