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[liberationtech] Who governs digital trust? (Cory Doctorow talk)

Yosem Companys companys at
Fri Aug 3 11:49:06 PDT 2012

From: Stewart Brand <sb at>

Doctorow framed the question this way:  “Computers are everywhere.  They
are now something we put our whole bodies into---airplanes, cars---and
something we put into our bodies---pacemakers, cochlear implants.  They
HAVE to be trustworthy.“

Sometimes humans are not so trustworthy, and programs may override you: “I
can’t let you do that, Dave.” (Reference to the self-protective insane
computer Hal in Kubrick’s film “2001.”  That time the human was more
trustworthy than the computer.)  Who decides who can override whom?

The core issues for Doctorow come down to Human Rights versus Property
Rights, Lockdown versus Certainty, and Owners versus mere Users.

Apple computers such as the iPhone are locked down---it lets you run only
what Apple trusts.  Android phones let you run only what *you* trust.
 Doctorow has changed his mind in favor of a foundational computer device
call the “Trusted Platform Module” (TPM) which provides secure crypto,
remote attestation, and sealed storage.  He sees it as a crucial “nub of
secure certainty” in your machine.

If it’s your machine, you rule it.  It‘s a Human Right: your computer
should not be overridable.  And a Property Right: “you *own* what you buy,
even if it what you do with it pisses off the vendor.”  That’s clear when
the Owner and the User are the same person.  What about when they’re not?

There are systems where we really want the authorities to rule---airplanes,
nuclear reactors, probably self-driving cars (“as a species we are terrible
drivers.”)  The firmware in those machines should be inviolable by users
and outside attackers.  But the power of Owners over Users can be deeply
troubling, such as in matters of surveillance. There are powers that want
full data on what Users are up to---governments, companies, schools,
parents.  Behind your company computer is the IT department and the people
they report to.  They want to know all about your email and your web
activities, and there is reason for that.  But we need to contemplate the
“total and terrifying power of Owners over Users.”

Recognizing that we are necessarily transitory Users of many systems, such
as everything involving Cloud computing or storage, Doctorow favors keeping
your own box with its own processors and storage.  He strongly favors the
democratization and wide distribution of expertise.  As a Fellow of the
Electronic Frontier Foundation (who co-sponsored the talk) he supports
public defense of freedom in every sort of digital rights issue.

“The potential for abuse in the computer world is large,” Doctorow
concluded.  “It will keep getting larger.”

--Stewart Brand


Stewart Brand -- sb at
The Long Now Foundation -
Seminars & downloads:
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