Transcript: Cory Doctorow On When Computers Disobey

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An interview with Cory Doctorow

for podcast release Monday, March 4, 2013

KENNEALLY: Imagine your computer is designed to disobey you, even worse, to hide things from you. Arthur C. Clarke imagined such a computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The HAL 9000 supercomputer famously sabotages a deep space mission when it turns on the human crew. As one astronaut attempts to disconnect HAL, the machine says with a human voice, I can’t let you do that, Dave.

In an essay for Publishers Weekly, Cory Doctorow uses that eerie phrase to connect fiction with fact. He decries the regime of DRM in publishing and other media that legitimizes spyware and criminalizes efforts to evade it. Cory Doctorow joins me now while on a US book tour promoting his latest novel. Welcome back to Beyond the Book, Cory.

DOCTOROW: Thank you for having me back.

KENNEALLY: We appreciate your joining us. You’re in Houston there between stops on a tour that’s taken you across the country. Cory Doctorow is author of the award-winning YA novel Little Brother, which was a New York Times bestseller. Doctorow’s latest book just out from Tor is a sequel to Little Brother. The Wall Street Journal says Homeland, quote, is as dead serious as 1984 and as potentially important a novel of ideas.

In addition to writing his novels, Doctorow is a co-editor of Boing Boing, a group blog covering technology, futurism and science fiction, among many other subjects, and he’s a columnist for multiple publications including the Guardian and Publishers Weekly. Cory Doctorow was named one of the Web’s 25 influencers by Forbes magazine and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.

And Cory, we want to talk to you about this essay in Publishers Weekly that documents ways that school systems, governments, and private businesses are using spyware in ways that reverse the human-computer relationship, putting the computers in control. Let’s start by having you tell us a bit about the Wiretapper’s Ball.

DOCTOROW: Oh, sure, but before I do that, can I brag a bit, because you said Little Brother is a New York Times bestseller, but also the sequel has just hit the New York Times bestseller list for the second week in a row.

KENNEALLY: Congratulations, and great news.

DOCTOROW: I like New York Times bestseller and New York Times bestselling sequel better than New York Times bestseller and a sequel. It’s got a nice ring to it.

KENNEALLY: I agree.

DOCTOROW: So, the Wiretapper’s Ball is an annual event in Washington, DC, for the lawful interception industry. Lawful interception is a polite euphemism for wiretapping. Starting in the 1990s with a bill called CALEA, many different kinds of technology vendors have built their systems so that law enforcement can listen in on them, or peek inside of them, remotely. So that essentially, they’re designed that if you know the policeman’s password, you can jump on the switch or the computer or the device or the system and find out how it’s being used.

Initially, that was supposed to be so that after a policeman got a warrant for a wiretap, he wouldn’t have to go all the way down to the phone office and connect special equipment to their switches. He could just sit down at a keyboard and type in a few commands and be listening to the bad guy’s phone calls.

But it very quickly hypertrophied so that now, this kind of lawful interception back door is a legal requirement in data switches as well. And of course, when you redesign switches so that they can be listened in on so that their integrity can be compromised by a design, it does get compromised, and periodically, you hear about hackers who break into systems by impersonating policemen because there’s a ready-made back door for you if you can successfully impersonate a policeman by supplying the right password.

The China hack in Google where China hacked Gmail and got access to a bunch of dissidents’ e-mail, they used the lawful interception to back door in Gmail.

KENNEALLY: So this is a real threat. You mentioned the case of China, but in your essay, you give us a number of examples, including – and I understand you’re speaking to us now on the book tour from a school in Texas, and there was a school system, a so-called laptop school, and the computers that it was distributing to students had such spyware installed in them.

DOCTOROW: Yes, that was actually Pennsylvania, Lower Merion, Pennsylvania. In 2010, a student at Lower Merion, Pennsylvania, filed a lawsuit against his high school. His name was Blake Robbins. What came out in the lawsuit was that the so-called antitheft software that they had installed in the laptops before they issued them to the students allowed them to remotely operate the camera without the students’ knowledge, so that the camera would switch on, but the little green light next to it would stay dark so that the students would never know that they were being watched over the network.

And this kid discovered that his school administration had taken thousands of photos of him when he was asleep and awake, and not just of him, but of other students that they wanted to keep an eye on. And they’d taken pictures of them in the nude, they’d taken pictures of people who weren’t students, their siblings, their parents, and so on. It was only supposed to be used to catch bad guys who’d stolen laptops, but Anton Chekhov says if you put a gun on the mantelpiece in Act I, it’s pretty definitely going to go off by Act III. If you give school administrators the power to spy on their students, they’ll use that power.

KENNEALLY: Indeed. And in your new book, Homeland, there is an afterword that is written. There are several. We’ll talk about them. One is by Jacob Appelbaum, who I understand is an engineer for WikiLeaks, and he has attended this Wiretapper’s Ball. What is the point that he makes in the afterword?

DOCTOROW: Jake went to the Wiretapper’s Ball, and it’s funny because these guys are super-duper spooks, but the way he snuck into the Wiretapper’s Ball was by buying a ticket under his own name, and they just let the guy from WikiLeaks come in and he walked around and collected all kinds of product literature for companies that would help governments to send fake iTunes updates to peoples’ computers that would let them hijack the camera and the microphone.

In the afterword, he talks about how technology can make us freer or technology can make us less free, and how a dedicated community of people who care about the future of the human race have spent decades building a free and freeing technology, technology that you can use for free and technology that makes you more free, from the new Linux operating system on down. And you can chose to use those technologies and make those technologies. You can demand better of the technology that you use.

KENNEALLY: Right. And it’s a very serious subject, clearly, in particular, because the other afterword in Homeland is written by someone who has paid a very high price indeed for his activities in this regard. Tell us about that.

DOCTOROW: Yes. My old friend Aaron Swartz wrote the other afterword. I knew Aaron for more than half of his life, and your listeners will know that Aaron committed suicide just over a month ago. He was facing a 35-year prison sentence for downloading a bunch of articles from a scientific article database called JSTOR. Effectively, he took too many books out of the library and the federal prosecutors decided that he was a felon for this and wanted to lock him up until he was an old man, really.

Aaron was a very clever guy. Aaron helped defeat SOPA, he helped define critical Internet standards, he helped found the company Reddit. When he died, he was only 26, and he’d done all of that by the age of 26, and he had lots more to come.

What he describes in the afterword is how they built the system that killed SOPA, the crazy Internet regulation proposal that died last year, how by organizing using the Internet, they were able to do something that nobody thought was possible. They were able to get enormous gangs of people to contact their congressmen so forcefully that although Congress was resolved to pass this bill, they had to back off from it. Ultimately, more than eight million people phoned their congressmen and senators about SOPA, and it totally changed the American political landscape, and that was in no small part thanks to the tools that Aaron built.

KENNEALLY: Right. And it seems to me that that’s a real life example of what’s happening in your books. So I understand for both Little Brother and Homeland, technology, of course is potentially an imprisoning force, but it is very much a liberating force in the ways that your characters use technology, define them, and their relationship with freedom.

You take it one step further and try to put the publishing world at odds with technology because of its embrace with DRM, so-called digital rights management, and you assert in the essay that this is a way to make it easier for the Web to be censored, and that’s something that clearly you’re opposed to. Explain for us the argument there regarding the role of publishing and DRM.

DOCTOROW: The censorship stuff is not so much the DRM. These would be copyright takedowns, but we’ll talk about both of them.

Digital rights management, conceptually what it has to do is stop you from doing things with your own computer, and that’s kind of a tricky subject. If you tell your computer, save this file or copy this file or convert this file, DRM wants to be able to kind of swim up out of the depths and say, I can’t let you do that, Dave.

And since nobody actually wants this on their computer, there isn’t any customer for a computer that allows third parties to enforce policy on it when the owner doesn’t like that policy, you end up in this very weird situation where you have to design computers not just to interdict their owners, but also to hide the means by which they’re interdicting. You have to have some facility for the computer to hide where the program is that’s causing the I-can’t-let-you-do-that-Dave error messages to appear on the screen, the You-can’t-copy-that-file, You-can’t-save-that-screen, You-can’t-rip-that-DVD message.

That program can’t be somewhere where the user can change it, because if there’s just an icon on the desktop that says HAL9000.exe, the user will drag it into the trash. So once you start redesigning computers to keep secrets from their owners, it makes them vulnerable to other people using that facility, using the invisibility cloak, the mote in the computer’s eye that has been designed in to stop it from knowing what it’s doing and reporting faithfully on what it’s doing. Unscrupulous people will be able to exploit that facility and use it attack the owner further.

As to censorship, the entertainment industry and publishing as part of that has monetonically ratcheted up the systems for removing material from the Internet on the basis that it may infringe copyright without any kind of court oversight, without any penalties for getting it wrong.

And over and over and over and over again, we see copyright takedown procedures being used – or abused, really – to attack political speech, to do things like make incidence videos of police atrocities in the Middle East disappear on the strength of an unsubstantiated copyright allegation. And now in Europe, in the United Kingdom and in France, and also in New Zealand, the entertainment industry including the publishing industry has three strikes and you’re out rules, where if you’re accused of three acts of copyright infringement, your Internet connection is terminated, and that means that you and everybody that you live with loses all of the benefits that we get from network access.

KENNEALLY: Right. And it’s your position, Cory, that this is an invitation to every bully on the Internet to silence detractors.

DOCTOROW: And it’s not just an allegation. It’s a fact. This is what the Church of Scientology does, thousands upon thousands of angry letters of takedown notices against their critics to make them fall silent.

KENNEALLY: We’ve been speaking with Cory Doctorow, who is the author of the award-winning and now New York Times bestselling novel and its sequel, Little Brother and the latest, Homeland. He is also co-editor of Boing Boing and a columnist for Publisher’s Weekly. We’ve been chatting about his most recent column for Publisher’s Weekly, I Can’t Let You Do That, Dave, taking a look at ways that computers have been designed to disobey their owners.

Cory Doctorow, thanks so much for joining us on Beyond the Book.

DOCTOROW: Thank you, Chris.

KENNEALLY: Beyond the Book is produced by Copyright Clearance Center, a global rights broker for the world’s most sought after materials including millions of books and e-books, journals, newspapers, magazines, and blogs, as well as images, movies, and television shows. Follow us on Twitter, find us on Facebook, and subscribe to the free podcast series on iTunes or at the Copyright Clearance Center Web site, copyright.com. Just click on Beyond the Book.

Our engineer is Jeremy Brieske of Burst Marketing. My name is Christopher Kenneally. For all of us at Copyright Clearance Center, thanks for listening to Beyond the Book.