TCS Daily

Tech in a Dangerous World

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - June 26, 2002 12:00 AM

The Internet is becoming a more dangerous place. Pro-Islamic hackers are targeting Western assets. Russian cybercriminals are playing cat-and-mouse with the FBI. And viruses and worms keep spreading. That's a problem for us, and an opportunity for some unsavory characters. Like Jack Valenti.

There are lots of defenses against hacking, of course: I sit behind both hardware and software firewalls, and update my antivirus programs religiously, and I'm not dumb enough to open suspicious attachments. Most everyone technically savvy enough to read TechCentralStation can probably say the same thing.

But all of these protections are only so good. Fundamentally, the Internet is designed to facilitate access. And today's computers are designed to easily incorporate new data and software, so as to take advantage of the flexibility that makes personal computing so powerful.

I wonder how long this will last, without a fight. Already there are powerful forces opposing open exchange of data: the MPAA, the RIAA, and so forth. And we're in the midst of a war in which information is likely to play a major role for both sides. It seems to me that it's only a matter of time before we begin to see efforts to take advantage of the genuine vulnerabilities of our current system to promote a system that's less vulnerable to bad guys - but also less threatening to governmental and corporate interests.

Operating systems and applications software on read-only media, for example, would be far less vulnerable to viruses and trojans. You might even imagine a system in which writable storage media were used only for data, no software at all. Such an approach would likely be very secure in many ways.

It would also be far less threatening to the powers-that-be in many industries. Imagine if you had to burn chips to distribute Linux, or Napster. Most little-guy threats to established businesses would evaporate under such rules.

This is only an illustration, but I hope that it makes my point: under the guise - and perhaps even the reality - of protecting computer systems from hostile programs, security arrangements could easily serve to protect existing corporate interests. It's not hard to imagine why governments and security agencies might prefer to limit most users to big corporate software, perhaps with clipper-chip style backdoors built in, either. And the big corporate types would surely be okay with that.

I think that such an approach would be a disaster in many ways. As I've written before, the openness and flexibility of today's Internet and PC world are tremendously valuable, especially to people without access to First World resources and markets. Only with the Internet can Polish software engineers and Ugandan musicians deliver their wares to customers with money around the world.

But saying that something would be a disaster isn't the same as saying that it's unlikely. The new Homeland Security legislation's anti-whistleblower provisions don't do much to bolster my faith in the government's commitment to openness, and the behavior of Big Entertainment and its Congressional allies certainly proves that there are people out there who think the Internet needs to be made safe for big business.

So keep your eyes open. I predict that within the next year we'll see major and intrusive efforts to protect Big Entertainment and Big Software, disguised as efforts to protect us against hostile hackers. Those efforts will be the more dangerous because there will be a grain of truth at their core: there really are hostile hackers out there trying to spread damage, and their numbers are growing. But don't let legitimate concerns about security blind you to opportunist grabs by people who have shown their opportunism in the past.

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