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The New Threat

Week of March 3, 2002
It's a bit of Big Brother and a lot of Big Money.

He went into the living room and sat down at a small table that stood to the left of the telescreen. From the table drawer he took out a penholder, a bottle of ink, and a thick, quarto-sized blank book with a red back and a marbled cover. For some reason the telescreen in the living room was in an unusual position. Instead of being placed, as was normal, in the end wall, where it could command the whole room, it was in the longer wall, opposite the window. To one side of it there was a shallow alcove in which Winston was now sitting, and which, when the flats were built, had probably been intended to hold bookshelves. By sitting in the alcove, and keeping well back, Winston was able to remain outside the range of the telescreen, so far as sight went. He could be heard, of course, but so long as he stayed in his present position he could not be seen. It was partly the unusual geography of the room that had suggested to him the thing that he was now about to do.
  -- George Orwell, 1984

Back in 1999 Fredrik Bjorck predicted that privacy and security would be the buzzwords of the new millennium, and the past three years have so far proven him right. Yet today we find ourselves facing an entirely new threat which quite possibly no one saw way back then.

The new threat is a bit of Big Brother, a lot of Big Money, a bit of what George Smith calls a 'control fetish'; and it is far more dangerous than anything else out there today or tomorrow - more than the script kiddies and worm authors and site crackers combined. More than even the IIS and Outlook vulnerabilities.

For this threat is a real and tangible threat and no mere annoyance. This threat has the backing of governments and guns. This threat can mean the end of Internet existence as we know it. And while the other so-called threats have the ability to irritate by exposing the hopelessly recidivist cluelessness in people, this new threat transcends all that. This new threat attacks us at the core of our collective (Internet) being.

Contemplate the DVD debates of the past ten years - how two proposed formats, developed by two Japanese consortiums together with Philips of the Netherlands stranded on the danger that one of these formats would eventually go the way of Betamax. Contemplate how the introduction of DVD was delayed and then delayed again and then delayed again, while Hollywood tried to figure out how the format could be crippled to maximise profits.

The initial prospect of the DVD was enlightened. On a single DVD of either proposed format you had enough room to put a film in several versions, several 'dubs', together with subtitles for as many as 24 different languages, and even include director's cuts, studio cuts, kiddie cuts etc - all on the same DVD.

The introduction of the DVD meant that classic cinema art would not go the way of celluloid. You would no longer need expensive efforts such as those used by Spielberg for Lawrence of Arabia, to cite but one example. Once a film was digitalised and put on DVD it was well preserved forever. The idea of the public library housing cinema as well as literature begged use of the term 'Brave New World'.

This was of course before Big Money started to look at things. What we have today is a far anaemic cry from the DVD's original promise. And today we have 'zones' as well, for heaven forbid that movies be available all over the world at the same time. Hollywood has to aim high when marketing movies. They have to build up market excitement for the cinema release, they have to milk that first cow as long as they can, then they have to let the cows sleep for a while, then we get inundated with the video rental marketing campaign, then we see the movie making it to cable, then finally we can buy it outright - where once Hollywood took your money once and once only, today they take it four or five times for a single film.

As if this were enough.

We've all followed the rise and fall of Napster, seen how Metallica millionaires have fought it, a few of us have seen the criticism of this approach as offered by Courtney Love and David Lindley, but we did in fact see Napster crushed. And although other companies claim to offer similar services, we all know that Napster is gone.

Then we have Adobe. This crew cannot encrypt their way into a paper bag, and the Russians pointed this out to them. And for that a good programmer sits in exile today in California. And cryptologists are today too afraid to discuss their work out in the open, for there's a new law on the globe, the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) which essentially says you can't open the bonnet of your car.

If you think that a program you've purchased is faulty, you have no recourse. You cannot investigate this matter. If you look inside at all you are in violation and if you're foolish enough to be in the US, the FBI can take you away.

People like Adobe are incapable of coming up with adequate security systems, and the obnoxiousness of the affair is how Adobe - and the US Federal Bureau of Investigation - have assumed a stance not totally unknown, namely that they have jurisdiction over the entire planet.

Recent discussions of spam and ways to prevent it have also centred on introducing legislation into the US Congress, a presumptuous way of thinking at the very best. Yet if Dmitry Sklyarov can be kept in a cell in California despite his being a Russian national, anything is possible, and we have to be ready for it.

And then of course we have the Beast in Redmond. When Bill Gates announces a February moratorium on bug production and also expresses sincere remorse for the pain his software has caused consumers everywhere, security experts discover Microsoft secretly using spyware across the board, in MSN Messenger, in Internet Explorer, in Hotmail - in every possible nook and cranny they can find. Couple this with .NET and you have an Orwellian nightmare.

And only this week The Register has drawn attention to activities in Washington where senator Fritz Hollings is promoting the new era of computer design where the concept of private property is summarily thrown out the window. It's the copy-protected PC, and it is going to take place at processor level, and when Intel sends its executive vice president Leslie Vadasz to try and clear the rubble, lackey Hollings on cue humiliates the gentleman. Opposition to the MPAA and the RIAA must simply not be allowed to be heard.


And last but not least we have Network Associates Incorporated, the new incarnation of the McAfee Money Machine. NAI has introduced new conditions on product use which comprise making negative comments a strictly verboten thing.


It is not a bright future we are currently looking at. While VB and JS worms continue to hound the clueless Outlook users, while IIS is still the web server of ridicule non pareil, other things have been happening, and the bad guys have been gaining territory on us.

There are no answers here. More than ever can be heard the voices of concern saying we all move to PGP and authorities especially in the US will start prying into our private lives like never before. But while encryption may protect our email and our disks, it does not obliterate the threat. No - that takes a lot more. That takes an outright attack on our part. That will take a grass roots movement, the likes of which we have not witnessed in a very long time.

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