We have met the enemy, and it is us

sun2jul2006—26w183d50%— 00h38m00s—0utc

[Vernor Vinge] added a third [future] trend: “The great conspiracy against human freedom.” As novelist Doris Lessing has observed, barons on opposite sides of the river don’t need to be in cahoots if their interests coincide. In our case, defence, homeland security, financial crime enforcement, police, tax collectors and intellectual property rights holders offer reasons to want to control the hardware we use. Then there are geeks, who can be tempted to forget the consequences if the technology is cool enough. Vinge quotes the most famous line from the comic strip Pogo: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Vinge’s technology to satisfy these groups’ dreams is the Secure Hardware Environment (She), which dedicates some bandwidth and a small portion of every semiconductor for regulatory use. Deployment is progressive, as standards are implemented. Built into new chips, She will spread inevitably through its predecessors’ obsolescence.

This part is terribly plausible. It sounds much like the Trusted Computing Platform, implemented in Intel chips and built into machines from Dell, Fujitsu-Siemens and others. Most people don’t realise their new computer contains a chip designed to block the operation of any software not certified by the group. Now enhance that and build it into RFID chips, networked embedded systems, shrink and distribute as “smart dust”. All are current trends or works in progress.

Geeks are willing to fight Trusted Computing on the grounds that it could be used to block open-source software or to enforce draconian digital rights management. But what if accepting it meant less visible security, less bureaucracy, even slight profit? She automatically sends taxes, enables much less noticeable surveillance and gets you through security checkpoints with no waiting. There’s less crime, because legislative reality can be enforced on physical reality. Fewer false convictions. Make regulation automatic, and it seems to go away. New laws can be downloaded as a regulatory upgrade.

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