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Thursday, May 4th, 2006

Who Owns Your Computer?

For those who don’t get the point of why I’m concerned about computer privacy and security, and am so quick to look for non-Microsoft alternatives, especially open-source operating systems and software, Bruce Schneier has written a brief essay that beautifully summarizes the dangerous trends:

When technology serves its owners, it is liberating. When it is designed to serve others, over the owner’s objection, it is oppressive. There’s a battle raging on your computer right now — one that pits you against worms and viruses, Trojans, spyware, automatic update features and digital rights management technologies. It’s the battle to determine who owns your computer.

You own your computer, of course. You bought it. You paid for it. But how much control do you really have over what happens on your machine? Technically you might have bought the hardware and software, but you have less control over what it’s doing behind the scenes.

Using the hacker sense of the term, your computer is “owned” by other people.

It used to be that only malicious hackers were trying to own your computers. Whether through worms, viruses, Trojans or other means, they would try to install some kind of remote-control program onto your system. Then they’d use your computers to sniff passwords, make fraudulent bank transactions, send spam, initiate phishing attacks and so on. Estimates are that somewhere between hundreds of thousands and millions of computers are members of remotely controlled “bot” networks. Owned.

Now, things are not so simple. There are all sorts of interests vying for control of your computer. There are media companies that want to control what you can do with the music and videos they sell you. There are companies that use software as a conduit to collect marketing information, deliver advertising or do whatever it is their real owners require. And there are software companies that are trying to make money by pleasing not only their customers, but other companies they ally themselves with. All these companies want to own your computer.

In the essay, he lists several specific ways some big companies are trying to own your computer. He mentions Sony, Microsoft and Google, but there are are lot more out there that are just as interested. The teenage wunderkind hacker, while still a threat, is chump change compared to the forces that want to control what you do and how you do it on your computer. Bruce concludes:

Just because computers were a liberating force in the past doesn’t mean they will be in the future. There is enormous political and economic power behind the idea that you shouldn’t truly own your computer or your software, despite having paid for it.

And it’s not just the software on your computer – it’s the connection to it. Yesterday I called and emailed my congressman’s office to urge him to vote against the COPE Act, which moved out of committee last week. Telecommunications companies want to control your access to the Internet, and want to profit from selling preferential treatment to the highest bidder, effectively turning over control of Internet content over to corporations. I don’t know how that can’t scary the willies out of anyone who likes being able to hear all sides of an argument.

Posted by Greg as Politics, Society, Software at 18:39 PST

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