Thursday, January 31, 2013

Unlocking Your Phone is Now Illegal (and that's just ridiculous)...

With almost no media attention, this week witnessed one of the great tragedies of the Digital Age.  Up until now, when you bought a cell phone designed for one service carrier's network, you had the ability to "unlock" the phone to use it on another's.  This isn't piracy or copyright infringement, as anyone who ever wanted to use their iPhone overseas, or wanted to switch from AT&T to Verizon after their contract was up, can attest.  It was just a matter of people who legally purchased a device wanting to open up the hood and make some adjustments.

Nevertheless, the Librarian of Congress decided to close a long-standing exemption in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) and make unlocking one's phone illegal as of this past Saturday.  In response, there's now a White House petition circulating seeking to overturn the Librarian's decision.

Everyone should consider for themselves the pros and cons behind unlocked cell phones.  Much of the debate, as perceived by the Librarian of Congress in his ruling, focused on to what extent unlocked phones would affect consumers in the marketplace.  And that's a very legitimate debate to have.  However, what's additionally striking is that this has become yet another case of individuals being considered strictly as consumers, and failing to frame the issue in terms of property rights.

Property rights is the more appropriate venue.  When you buy a car, you're able to open up the hood and customize the engine.  Heck, you can completely change any aspect of the car.  And the reason is that you own it.  Now, imagine if you bought a Honda but the government came out proclaiming it was suddenly illegal to have anyone but Honda Corp. service it or change any components, and even that Honda Corp. had to right to approve or reject any changes before they could be made.  It would be absurd because the very concept of property rights, by definition, protects your ability to do what you want with your property, so long as it doesn't cause physical harm or damage to others.  The determination has nothing to do with how your changes might affect the extremely general notion of economic externalities in the broader marketplace.  You can bring your Honda to your local mechanic shop regardless of whether that will hurt Honda Corp.'s financial interests.

So guess what everybody?  You thought that when you paid $500 for that iPhone in your pocket that you actually bought it?  Think again.  According to the U.S. government, you are now legally locked-in to a device through, what is essentially, a perpetual lease.  You don't own it anymore than you own the PC in your office cubicle.  It's subject to someone else's rules in perpetuity, for the entire life of the device.

Whatever happened to a Culture of Ownership?


Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Schools Requiring Students to Wear RFID Trackers...

In November, a high school student named Andrea Hernandez was suspended for refusing to wear the ID badge that her school requires.  Now, many schools issue some type of ID card, however this school in particular issued their ID card with a radio-frequency identification (RFID) chip embedded within it.  It enables school administrators to track the location of each student on campus at all times.

With the ongoing debate about enhancing public safety in schools - mostly centered on gun control - where does this case of mandatory RFID trackers fit in?  The school district argues that these chips are also needed for ensuring the safety of students, however, how can such concerns over safety be reasonably reconciled with other valid concerns regarding individual privacy?

Earlier this month, the case went to federal court and U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia dismissed Hernandez's request for a preliminary injunction - basically upholding the school's ability to require RFID cards.

But before everyone assumes that privacy is dead and that Big Brother has finally arrived, it should be noted that the case isn't as simple as that.

First of all, the school offered Hernandez a compromise - that she would still have to wear the ID badge, but could have the RFID chip removed.  Hernandez refused.  The judge noted that this seriously undermined her claim.

Second, and this is especially interesting, Hernandez wasn't arguing that the RFID card violated her rights to privacy, but rather that it violated her religious freedom.  Her evangelical Christian father, Steven Hernandez, had equated the badges to the Biblical "mark of the beast", and it was on those grounds that the injunction was dismissed.

So the privacy issue is still very much undetermined. 

While some privacy advocates have commented on how that's a shame, perhaps it's actually a blessing in disguise.  Rather than getting a comprehensive and precedent-setting ruling on privacy rights, in a case where an intractable plaintiff has rejected a very reasonable compromise, it may suit privacy advocates better in the long run to wait for a case where it's the school district who refuses to budge and comes across as far more totalitarian.

And that's what everyone should remember about this case, despite the headlines.  In the end, the school did not require the RFID tracker.  Better to seek a privacy ruling on a case where they did.


Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Should Congress Ban 'Wiki Weapons'...

In the wake of the Newtown school shooting, a lot of national attention is focusing on the issue of gun control, and under the radar there is public policy being pursued related to plastic guns being made with 3D printers.

Hardly anyone seems aware of 3D printers yet, but basically they are computer printers that any individual can buy for their home PC, except that instead of printing text or graphics onto a piece of paper, it prints a three-dimensional (a.k.a. - "real") object using plastic.

As I've argued before, this is a potentially transformative technology because it democratizes manufacturing to the masses.  Anyone can now be a plastics manufacturer of goods, from the comfort of their home, at little cost.

However, the downside of this democratization is that it's also far easier for individuals to create objects that are harmful and dangerous.  There is even the potential for people to manufacture, yes, plastic guns.  And, in case you're wondering, this is no longer hypothetical.  Just last month, a 3D printed gun successfully fired off a few live rounds.

Trying to get ahead of the curve, Congressman Steve Israel has called for a legislative ban on such gun manufacturing using 3D printers.  He correctly notes that any gun control legislation that didn't include such a provision would be easily circumvented by such 3D printed plastic guns that would be capable of bypassing metal detectors.

On the other side of the argument, Cory Doctorow of Boing Boing points out that, while 3D printed guns are problematic, there are major flaws with how Rep. Israel's ban would be implemented...

Firmware locks for 3D printers? A DMCA-like takedown regime for 3D shapefiles that can be used to generate plastic firearms (or parts of plastic firearms?). A mandate on 3D printer manufacturers to somehow magically make it impossible for their products to print out gun-parts?

Every one of those measures is a nonsense and worse: unworkable combinations of authoritarianism, censorship, and wishful thinking. Importantly, none of these would prevent people from manufacturing plastic guns. And all of these measures would grossly interfere with the lawful operation of 3D printers.

The conflicting ideals of public safety versus individual freedom lie at the heart of this debate over 3D printed "Wiki Weapons", just as they do in the larger issue of gun control, more generally.  But while politicians grapple with striking an appropriate Second Amendment balance, here's something else to consider:  3D printers are only as accessible a manufacturing tool for ordinary users as their software empowers them to be.  This is fundamentally a software question as much as it is a legislative one.  Technologists like Lawrence Lessig have been arguing for years that "code is law" and that software inevitably comes to embody certain core political values at the expense of others.  Let's put this theory to test.  Since 3D printing software is still in its nascent infancy, its future design will either evolve to make it easier for such Wiki Weapons to be manufactured, or more difficult, or, most likely, set the parameters for how limited these weapons will or will not be.

Computer programmers of the world, take note.  The resolution of this issue is as much in your hands as anyone's.