Friday, February 21, 2020

How the Internet of Things Is a Throwback to the Middle Ages

It's an interesting perspective that I hadn't really thought of in those terms.  Now that I've read a law professor's opinions on this, I don't think it's far off the mark.  It certainly raises things to think about. 

Let me step back and set the story up a little more.  My day-to-day browser in the Windows world is Firefox.  One of the things Firefox set itself up to do is to offer me stories to read when I open blank tabs; those stories are from a site called Pocket.  Pocket appears to be an aggregator, because virtually everything it offers me is on site other than their own, but they actually do offer some content of their own.  In this case, “The ‘Internet of Things’ Is Sending Us Back to the Middle Ages” by author Joshua A.T. Fairfield, a Professor of Law at Washington and Lee University, is that content.

Fairfield opens by telling a story you'll probably recall; about a Las Vegas casino that was hacked through its fish tank.
The tank had internet-connected sensors measuring its temperature and cleanliness. The hackers got into the fish tank’s sensors and then to the computer used to control them, and from there to other parts of the casino’s network. The intruders were able to copy 10 gigabytes of data to somewhere in Finland.
He goes on to argue that the problem with Internet of Things (IoT) appliances like this fish tank is that we don't control them and it's not always clear who does. 
In my book, “Owned: Property, Privacy and the New Digital Serfdom,” I discuss what it means that our environment is seeded with more sensors than ever before. Our fish tanks, smart televisions, internet-enabled home thermostats, Fitbits and smartphones constantly gather information about us and our environment. That information is valuable not just for us but for people who want to sell us things. They ensure that internet-enabled devices are programmed to be quite eager to share information.
He goes on to talk about the Roomba issue that came up a few years ago - Borepatch covered it and while it was talked about, I don't think it was deadly bad P/R for the manufacturer, iRobot.  If you forget, the higher end Roombas were mapping owners' homes so that they could optimize their routes.  Early Roombas went in a line until they hit something, turned and went off in a more or less random direction.  The room-mapping units were more efficient.  Then it was leaked that iRobot was looking to share those maps of the layouts of people’s private homes with its commercial partners.

As Borepatch frequently adds, security wasn't an afterthought, it was never thought of.  Why should iRobot have any access to a map of your house?  Why should they be allowed to sell that information? 

Fairfield goes on to conclude a real problem is ownership.  You know that when you buy software, you're not taking ownership of it, you're licensing the ability to run one copy of it.  When you buy the latest snazzy smartphone, you're buying a useless piece of hardware because without the software it's running, it's not even a plain old phone: it's useless.  (We used to joke you bought a paperweight, but they're too light to be a paperweight!)

This idea is spreading to mechanical, physical things, not just software.
This sort of arrangement is destroying the concept of basic property ownership. John Deere has already told farmers that they don’t really own their tractors but just license the software – so they can’t fix their own farm equipment or even take it to an independent repair shop.
Divemedic over at Confessions of a Street Pharmacist has posted stories about Tesla motors essentially doing the same things, and turning off features in the cars' software if the car was bought used from a previous owner and running software not installed by Tesla themselves.  Nearly 15 years ago, there was a new name in home Digital Video Recorders: TiVo.  TiVo originally sold their DVRs by hard drive size and computer geeks quickly realized they could buy the cheapest DVR and replace the hard drive with one from their local store.  TiVo did their best to stop that before failing.

Where does the concept of the middle ages come in?  Back to Fairfield:
The issue of who gets to control property has a long history. In the feudal system of medieval Europe, the king owned almost everything, and everyone else’s property rights depended on their relationship with the king. Peasants lived on land granted by the king to a local lord, and workers didn’t always even own the tools they used for farming or other trades like carpentry and blacksmithing.

Over the centuries, Western economies and legal systems evolved into our modern commercial arrangement: People and private companies often buy and sell items themselves and own land, tools and other objects outright. Apart from a few basic government rules like environmental protection and public health, ownership comes with no trailing strings attached.

This system means that a car company can’t stop me from painting my car a shocking shade of pink or from getting the oil changed at whatever repair shop I choose. I can even try to modify or fix my car myself. The same is true for my television, my farm equipment and my refrigerator.

Yet the expansion of the internet of things seems to be bringing us back to something like that old feudal model, where people didn’t own the items they used every day. In this 21st-century version, companies are using intellectual property law – intended to protect ideas – to control physical objects consumers think they own.
If we truly own our own technology - I'm thinking our tablets or phones - we should be able to write software for them, or modify the Operating System if we feel we're qualified to do so.  The Android universe might be more accepting of that, but I know the Apple iOS people would do their best to stop anything that isn't in their App Store model.  Android for phones was rumored to be written by Google so that they can get their snooping technology into as many people's lives as possible - so they can harvest more data about users and sell it. 

Final words to Fairfield:
We need the right to fix our own property. We need the right to kick invasive advertisers out of our devices. We need the ability to shut down the information back-channels to advertisers, not merely because we don’t love being spied on, but because those back doors are security risks, as the stories of Superfish and the hacked fish tank show. If we don’t have the right to control our own property, we don’t really own it. We are just digital peasants, using the things that we have bought and paid for at the whim of our digital lord.

The iFixit Manifesto.


  1. Excellent post -- and the ownership thing's surely valid. That in mind, the Medieval serf, descendant of his Roman forebears, had more "days off" and perhaps as much fun as today's corporate shelf-stacking serfs at Walmart, or wherever.

    Of course the Medieval thing was tempered by Christendom, which was a real and pervasive cultural force. Today?

    Pretty much gone. So I say beware our new Tech Overlords. Forgive the ramble!

  2. to somewhere in Finland It went to anon.penet.Finland. At the time it was one of the secure sites on the Internet. I had an account there as did just about everyone else in the rackets.

  3. About the John Deere tractors, you'd think some other manufacture would sell a comparable tractor without the restrictions. These are not cheap machines... There must be more to it than I realize.

    1. Many people buy John Deere equipment because their father, grandfather and maybe even great grandfather bought it. Also JD has create implements that will only physically interface properly with a JD traction device. Sixteen years ago, I didn't buy a JD tractor because the "green paint" cost another $5000 more than the $20,000 I spent on another brand; the loyalists don't care.

      The automobile industry has tried the same sort of tricks. AMC created bolts and nuts that required special tools back in the 1970's. They used patents to prevent others from making the tools and only sold the tools to dealers. I don't remember that lasting long. I remember too when the auto companies tried to use not doing normal servicing like oil changes, tire rotations, etc. at their dealers to void the warranties. That didn't last long either.

      It will yet again take lawsuits and probably another law or two to break the control over software.

  4. Like much of the march of progress (and chaos) this is going to take lawsuits to fix.

    People are going to have to sue to force hardware manufacturers to assume the cost of upgrading, for example, a PC, when it is no longer capable of handling the operating updates.

    It's going to have to be turned back around on them.
    When Ma Bell owned the phone system, the phones were built like brick sh*thouses, to last 100 years of heavy-duty use. The onus to upgrade them was on Ma Bell, not you.

    Alternatively, people will have to revolt: if my PC/car/gadget can be turned on and off, downgraded, etc., then the maker is going to have to eat 90% of the costs for it up front, as it's no longer "mine". I'll happily pay $20/year to rent their machine, and they can do what they like with it.
    If they're not willing to do that, and take the hit on not collecting revenue up front, someone else will build machines that will run actual open-source software, and run existing computer and software companies out of business, exactly as happened to music companies, as is happening to movie and television production studios.

    Boilerplate "licensing" agreements aren't worth the signatures they're not signed with, and it's going to take some nuclear lawsuits to make that point in court, but it's inevitable.

    Back in the day, Edison & Co. tried to shake down everyone making a movie as someone who owed him a cut of the action, and NY/NJ courts and judges, in Edison's pocket, upheld that idea.

    So half a dozen young gentleman of Askenazi heritage realized that if they were going to make movies, they'd have to get out from under Edison's thumb, and they hopped the train westward. They arrived in Phoenix the one day it was raining in months, so they continued on to Union Station, in Los Angeles, and decided that was the perfect place to make movies.

    Edison's stranglehold on the technology was broken, and the rest is history. Literally.

    The next train hopped will be metaphorical, but somebody (or a lot of them) are going to do with software and the internet of my things, what guys named Mayer, Thalberg, Fox, etc. did with motion pictures: break them out of serfdom.

    Mark my words.

    People will be free, and they will own their possessions outright. You can't stop the signal.

    - Aesop

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  6. I could do with rather less communist iconography.

    1. Damn... it's so pervasive, I didn't pick up on that, however, that image really captures my own sentiment, because not everyone is capable of mech/tech work and it's vastly underappreciated today. It should be celebrated... Go Mike Rowe!

    2. I didn't really catch that either, but there are other problems I have with it. It talks about "Earth have limited resources" and that has nothing to do with the right to fix things you own. First off, if anyone fixes it the resources are saved, not just if the owner does. Second off, it's just plain silly. If resources were that scarce, recycling wouldn't be collapsing because there's no money in it, and landfills would be mined.

  7. I saw that, but I applied the 80% rule, stole it, and pasted it on FB.

  8. Nobody is stopping a manufacturer from offering a tractor with Volkwagon-type maintenance properties. The Ubuntu phone is a thing. We the voters are entitled to force the manufacturers at gunpoint to correct a failure of the "market" to supply something we aren't willing to buy. "Laws", "lawsuits", and "regulations" are just words for forcing innocent people to be partial slaves at gunpoint.

    1. No, they aren't. And clearly you can't read either.
      But have fun with anarchy, and tell us what it gets you.

      Lawsuits frequently are telling people that there are limits to their conduct, because, e.g., making cornflakes out of radium is not just malum prohibidum, but rather malum in se.

      This is why any sport worth the name has not just rules, but referees and umpires.
      Perhaps you've noticed that, since nothing else penetrated after you read some load of twaddle like Atlas Shrugged.
      - Aesop

    2. making cornflakes out of radium is not just malum prohibidum, but rather malum in se

      And similarly, for attempting to make self-defense out of slavery. What anarchy is going to get me is a return to the trend line of technological growth, and the subsequent freedom and wealth. Given that great ape politics is instinctual for humans, I don't except the whining about the lack of a strongman central planner to ever end.

    3. "attempting to make self-defense out of slavery"...

      Sorry, I'm fluent in a couple of languages, and familiar with several more, but as I don't speak Dog Whistle, that little flourish is relegated to the gibberish pile.

      But pray, tell the class all the technological marvels wrought by anarchic societies, from pre-history to five minutes ago, and the boundless freedom and wealth they created.
      Show all work.

      Then, cleverly contrast the paltry achievements of non-anarchic civilization, in creating such petty baubles as steam locomotives, powered flight, moon rockets, space satellites, television, and the computer on which you pound out such utter indefensible drivel, and explain the absolute squalor of that civilization compared to its opposite.

      Then realize that no one advocated for a central planner, (in fact, exactly the opposite, had you been paying any sort of attention), and stop whining about that dog whistle too.

      Alternatively, listen to your doctors, and go back on the meds, and trust when they tell you only think you sound sane without them.

      Nothing less can explain such a deep-rooted psychosis.

    4. no one advocated for a central planner

      You are advocating for a central planner of laws, and courts and police to enforce them. These central planners dictate an enormous amount of malum prohibidum, such as who controls the software in a tractor claimed to be "sold", and justify this dictation by stopping a tiny bit of malum in se.

      tell the class all the technological marvels wrought by anarchic societies

      This argument of 'humans have always organized societies using governments, therefore it must be correct' justifies wars of aggression, chattel slavery, genociding minorities, everything bad which governments do.

      A violent interaction between an aggressing and an innocent human has two sides. The innocent side does self-defense; the aggressing side does government. A band of organized criminals running a protection racket does not become virtuous when they grow to some numeric member count or local percentage, or label themselves the 'city council'. That's just you thinking with your great ape instincts, not your rationality.

      Try the veal, I'll be here all week.

    5. I have advocated for no such things.
      Your assumptions are invalid.

      "This argument of 'humans have always organized societies using governments, therefore it must be correct' justifies wars of aggression, chattel slavery, genociding minorities, everything bad which governments do."
      Straw Man fallacy.
      And you also failed to note the technological marvels you alleged anarchy produced, past tense.
      You had all of recorded human history for reference materials, and wasted all your time arguing against something not put forth, instead of offering evidence in support of your own contention.
      Put up or shut up.
      Gainsaying equals bio-methane. Worth: zero.

      "A violent interaction between an aggressing and an innocent human..."
      Assumes facts not in evidence, to wit, the contention that any humans are innocent.
      The idea that there is an aggressor and an innocent is also an a priori logical fallacy.
      Congratulations: Circular Reasoning fallacy.

      Strike five, and you're far beyond out.
      I know Ike, let's try a spelling bee.

  9. After a career in technology, in my retirement I've started moving toward less technological complication in my life. I'm not giving up things like computers or my smartphone, but I'm giving all my gadgets, from my vehicles to that smartphone, a lot of side-eye. I've ditched the new-ish Subaru and went with an old GMC pickup as an example. I used less proprietary software than I used to, although I still use it where it's the best solution. Open source is often good enough for my needs.

    We would all do ourselves a favor, I think, if we thought a bit more about the effects our gadgets have on our lives in more depth. Do you really need every device in your home attached to the Internet? Are the new microprocessor controlled washer and dryer better than the old ones with mechanical controls? Does the snazzy glass cooktop that you can't use your grandmother's cast iron on cook any better than the old electric stoves with calrods? (Better yet, get a gas stove.)

    Mrs. Freeholder says I'm getting this way because I'm getting old. I think she's right, but it's because I've lived long enough to learn to see the long-term consequences of my decisions better than my 30 YO self could.

    1. Funny you should bring this up. We're in the process of replacing our 15 year old central air conditioning system. They quoted a thermostat that offers WiFi and connects to an Alexa. We won't have an Alexa or any of those voice operated controls in the house.

      I told him I don't want a WiFi thermostat and he said it costs an extra $50 to leave it out. I'd be happy with the old mechanical ones that have bimetallic strip, I don't want programmable or WiFi. I'm paying extra to get a thermostat without WiFi.

    2. Why couldn't he use the one already installed in the house?

      I've got a 35 year old Hunter Set N Save II programmable that I took with me when I moved out of my last abode. 4 wire hookup controls heat and AC (HVAC system). All one needs to do is match the color coded wires on the hookup panel. If I remember correctly, it cost me $50.00 at the time.

      As far as having ANY device that is always listening to what is going on in your house, I believe that anyone that purchases such a device doesn't have two brain cells to rub together.


    3. Why couldn't he use the one already installed in the house?

      Especially since we got it last August. The previous one was blown by induced voltage when our palm tree got hit by lightning.

      We mentioned that before, but I'm going to pester them again about just using what we have.

      As far as having ANY device that is always listening to what is going on in your house, I believe that anyone that purchases such a device doesn't have two brain cells to rub together.

      And then they bitch when they find outsiders can listen in.

  10. We have as little of the "smart" tech in our home as possible. I don't need to have voice command over the appliances at the cost it involves. Don't need it at all, actually.

  11. My cheapo Wal-Mart prepaid smart phone is the most complicated part of my life. And I keep a loaded gun handy in case it gets out of line! I know people with the internet technology embedded in their entire life. Nice people, but entirely too trusting and naive. I've made a living fixing broken things for almost 40 years. The more technologically complicated it is the more unreliable it is...

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