net.wars: The robot centurions

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 09 January 2004

"You don't want to do that, Dave."
"I'm not going to let you do that, Dave."
"I'm sorry, Dave, I'm just not going to do that."
"Dave, I've called the police."

Wendy M Grossman

It seems that our technology is becoming our policeman. Forget Bobbies on the beat. We have printers, computers, and software, all on the watch, and the enemy they're trying to deter is us.

Adobe's latest version of Photoshop, "Photoshop CS," refuses to open or scan images of currency, and if the European Central Bank Deterrence Group (thank you to Jon Honeyball for these links) has its way, everything else will, too. You might rather the technology turned its attention to our security rather than theirs, but you can't have everything in this computerised world, we know this.

We've been writing for years about digital rights management and its use to impose upon all of us the agenda of the very special interests of the RIAA and MPAA. Now it turns out that they're not the only ones who have had the idea that technology can be used to prevent us from doing things they don't like. And just as the RIAA/MPAA don't care very much if in blocking us from copying the material they own they also block us from copying material of our own, the banking group doesn't seem to care very much that most uses of computer and related technology to look at or create pictures of currency are legal, although individual countries vary in how anal they are about this. A September 2003 Federal Reserve report, for example, estimates that the stock of counterfeit US money amounts to one or fewer in 10,000 in both piece and value terms, and that losses to the US public from counterfeiting the most commonly used note, the $20 bill, are "relatively small" - or even minuscule if you limit your consideration to only counterfeit notes "of reasonable quality". According to conference write-ups from Banknote 2003, a conference about currency counterfeiting, 40 percent of counterfeit US currency comes from Colombia, by the way.

There are several different issues here, none of them pretty. First of all, the basis on which both the British and American legal systems operate is that you are innocent until proven guilty. Increasing numbers of initiatives are eating away at this principle, from the US government's most recent gambit of fingerprinting and photographing all visitors to the US to technological pre-emption gambits like this one. Lawrence Lessig warned several years ago in his book Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace about the many ways that technology can be used to control behaviour. You can certainly argue that protecting the public from the evils of counterfeit currency is a worthy cause, but where is the balance that would let us pursue legal uses of the technology we've bought and paid for?

The second issue is the stealth with which these changes have been made. The technology industry has, logically enough, developed privately, and other than through focus groups manufacturers have not in general felt they needed to consult the public about what features should be incorporated in the products they design and bring to market. They take their chances like manufacturers in all other industries, creating new things and hoping we'll want to buy them. But as technology becomes more and more pervasive there are more and more areas where how it's designed has consequences for public policy. Which is fair enough and hardly unprecedented: we demand that the automobile industry consider public safety in product design. What is of concern is that the technology industry may be coopted to implement private policies about which we are not consulted. Each individual policy may in and of itself be unobjectionable; but if it's so unobjectionable why don't they tell us about it? It just needs another section in the features table for "supported international laws and treaties".

The stealth problem leads to a third issue: the uncertainty whether technology will work the way we expect. Now, I know you're going to say: don't be silly, of course it won't, there'll be BUGS! But how do you make a reasonable evaluation of what the problem is in any given case of technical failure if you don't actually know what the technology is designed to do or prevent? Is refusing to handle pictures of currency a bug or a feature?

And that is our immediate reaction. If they're going to talk about incorporating copy protection into standard computer hardware, DVD players, and video recorders, we're going to buy hacked hardware and hoard the last models to appear without those "features". So the industry is up against it. Refuse to do what the authorities demand, and they face a protracted and expensive legal and political battle. Incorporate the authorities' technical demands, and - if and when we find out about it - they will have a customer rebellion on their hands. What if they built new technology and nobody came?

There is, of course, a simple solution to that. Make it illegal to refuse to upgrade your software to "take advantage" of the legal regime enforced in the updated version? If old software is outlawed, only outlaws will have old software. Arrest that man! He's using a copy of Photoshop 7!

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).