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Not an Overstatement

The Computer Corner

All you want to know about computers by Charles Miller

Please permit me to reaffirm that I do appreciate the frequent feedback I receive from readers. Some readers thought I was being hyperbolic when I recently stated one could go to jail just for refilling printer ink cartridges with non-manufacturer-approved ink, so this week I want to explain to everyone why that is not overstatement.

The US Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 (DMCA) is unquestionably a fine example of corporate America buying some of the most consumer-hostile legislation in the history of modern technology. DMCA criminalizes a broad range of activities in the name of protecting copyrights.

One section of DMCA, 17 U.S. Code § 1201 is the focus of much angst. It reads “No person shall circumvent a technological measure that effectively controls access to a work protected under this title.” English translation: If you do not want to spend big bucks to buy new ink for your printer, and you find a way to bypass the manufacturer’s software blocks so you can refill the ink yourself, then you have committed a crime. If the manufacturer wants to make a federal case out of it, then you could be faced with fines and possible jail time.

A recent case in the news is that of Assistant Professor Matthew Green of Johns Hopkins University who has asked US courts for protection so that he can write a textbook explaining cryptography and do so without getting sued or jailed. You see the larger problem with the DMCA is that it not only makes it illegal for you or me to save money by refilling our own printer ink cartridges; it also makes it unlawful for legitimate researchers to even look for flaws in any corporation’s software much less point out problems they may find.

Like it or not, software is an incredibly important part of all of our lives. Software runs devices including gas pumps, ATMs, and banking apps on our phones, the phones themselves, medical devices, thermostats, automobiles, and far too many other things to list including the entire Internet. There is a critical need for researchers and even us users to have the legal right to examine software and to point out its bugs so they can be fixed. In a few cases though big corporations are wielding the DMCA as a cudgel against anyone who dares to suggest that any flaws could exist in its products.

In 2007 Edward Felten, a Professor of Computer Science and Public Affairs at Princeton University, along with two graduate students published a paper documenting severe security flaws in voting machine software. Their work verified that malicious software running on a single voting machine could steal votes and modify audit logs so that even a careful forensic examination would find nothing amiss. Little has been heard of that report in the last decade and some thinking individuals are asking: “Why?”

Charles Miller is a freelance computer consultant, a frequent visitor to San Miguel since 1981 and now practically a full-time resident. He may be contacted at 044 415 101 8528 or email FAQ8 (at) SMAguru.com.

 

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