Why we’ve lost control of our own hardware

Companies are exerting ever more control and restrictions over our hardware, discovers Stewart Mitchell, in this month’s PC Probe

Who owns your computer and decides how you use the hardware that you have bought? In short, not you. Hardware and software companies are increasingly conspiring with entertainment moguls to limit how you use home electronics.

Media organisations, such as the music industry’s Recording Industry Association of America have been widely criticised for placing DRM on albums, often inflicting unfair restrictions on consumers.

But the IT companies responsible for applying those limitations are equally culpable of putting the mockers on consumers. Take NAS drive maker Western Digital, for example, which recently prevented consumers from sharing MP3 and other files using its hardware, apparently at the behest of rights holders.

“There’s been DRM in hardware for a while, but the amount of pressure to do DRM has been increasing as entertainment companies – particularly movie industries, but also other kinds of publishers – get more involved in creating proprietary standards that come with licensing conditions,” claims Seth Schoen, a technologist with the Electronic Freedom Frontier.

Buying hardware with pre-installed DRM is one thing, but companies now routinely

change hardware features long after the consumer has handed over his money. The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, for example, can both output high-definition video, but early versions didn’t support the necessary copy protection and so the hi-def films would be disabled. Apple, meanwhile, thinks nothing of disabling an iPhone that the customer has attempted to unlock.

“I think this trend will continue because digital devices – which are really programmable computers – and PCs are very ‘plastic’, so you can have a relationship changing from a simple sale where you buy a particular device (that you might be able to fix or repair) to one where your technology is being remotely reconfigured, maybe to add features or maybe to take them away, and you may not get much say over this,” says Schoen.

“A lot of devices are remotely updateable by the manufacturer so they can add or – in many cases – remove features remotely after you’ve already bought the device. If there’s a court order, they can reach out into your house, so to speak, and change how devices work.”

Breaking the law?

However, manufacturers are playing a dangerous game, because according to experts, such remote fiddling could breach hacking legislation, especially if the user hasn’t signed their rights away by agreeing to licensing small print.

“Manufacturers have to be careful because of the Computer Misuse Act and they should really ask for specific permission before changing anything on your computer – and if they are accessing any files or reporting back on your machine, they have to comply with the Data Protection Act,” says Lawrence Akka, a lawyer with the 20essexst.com practice.

“The problem is that some of these issues are often covered in terms and conditions and manufacturers will try and get away with anything they can in there, safe in the knowledge that no-one is going to read them and even if they did there’s not much they could do about them.”

When it comes to DRM in hardware, manufacturers hide behind the assertion that not rolling over for media companies would spark legal action. But lawyers claims that manufacturers may be over-egging the legal risk. “If you make technology that has no purpose other than a copyright-infringing purpose, the technology itself may be unlawful,” says Struan Roberts, a lawyer with Outlaw.com. “But if it has legitimate purposes as well, which a double tape deck does, you don’t blame the hardware.”

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