Who owns your electronics?

Paul Raven @ 06-08-2009

Xbox undergoing a (probably illegal) modification procedureGiven the ubiquity of the story at the moment, you may well have already heard about the Los Angeles man facing a potential ten year jail term for the heinous crime of modifying games consoles. If so, you may be wondering exactly how that law operates – after all, if you own something, shouldn’t it be your right to do what you wish with it? TechDirt highlights the disconnect:

It’s interesting to see the use of the word “jailbreaking” here, as that’s more commonly been applied to iPhones — where it’s common. Usually, this action has been referred to as “modding” or “modchipping” when it came to consoles. But the basic fact is that the actions are effectively the same — and both should be perfectly legal. Modifying legally purchased hardware should never be against the law. It’s possible that you could then use that modified hardware to break the law — and no one’s saying that’s okay. But the act itself of modifying the devices should never be against the law — especially where it could lead to a ten-year prison sentence, as in this case.

Ars Technica consulted a legal expert to get the real skinny on the situation:

The news was bad. “With hardware, you can do pretty much anything you want with it. There are very few rules that apply. You buy it, you own, you can take it apart, and that’s perfectly fine,” she explained. The problem is that no one simply modifies the hardware. “It becomes complicated with modern hardware because it’s combined with firmware, the embedded software.”

The infamous DMCA states that you can’t circumvent any software protection to get at the copyrighted work it protects. If you’re using a software exploit or installing a mod chip, you’re disabling that protection to allow yourself to run homebrew code, and you’re running afoul of the DMCA. “Thou shall not circumvent,” Granick told Ars, counting the two ways to break the law. “And thou shall not provide tools to others.

The intent is meaningless. Even if you simply want to modify an Xbox to use as a media center, you’re breaking the law, since you’ve given the system the ability to run unsigned code.

So, what’s clear is that Crippen’s arrest and charges are completely legal. What’s not so clear is whether or not they should be, and whether the potential penalty is even slightly proportional to the crime in question. Five years in the clink for modifying a single games console seems more than a little excessive, after all; here in the UK, the average house burglar doesn’t serve a stretch that long. [image by videocrab]

One suspects that, much as with the Thomas and Tenenbaum cases, the ESA is trying its best to make an example of Crippen, pour discourager les autres. How effective that could possibly be is anyone’s guess, but I wouldn’t want to bet on console modding disappearing any time too soon. Crippen himself makes the point pretty clear in the closing lines of Threat Level’s report:

Crippen appeared in Los Angeles federal court late Monday and was released on $5,000 bond.

He said it took about 10 minutes to jailbreak a console.

Where did he learn the skill?

Google, man.”

And there it is; I hope the ESA has a lot of nails, because the lid to Pandora’s Box isn’t going to close as easily as they’d like. The question is whether market forces will eventually turn people toward platforms with open source firmware, or ones which simply don’t come with any restrictions on what you can do with them – like the average desktop PC, for example.

The games console market grew strong in the days when most people couldn’t afford a powerful general purpose computer, but nowadays they’re cheap enough that people use them as little more than DVD players; what will it take for consumers to stop paying through the nose for the privilege of being locked into a piece of hardware where obsolescence and restricted use is an integral part of the package? The answer my gamer friends give me is that you just can’t get enough good games that run on PCs… which sounds to me like a market gap waiting to be exploited.

Will the next decade or so see an increase in locked hardware, or will openness become a strong selling point? Hell knows that when I can actually buy things like augmented reality spex, I’ll be buying the open-source ones that allow me to do whatever I want with them.

Eye in the sky – commercial satellites trace Sudanese arms purchases

Paul Raven @ 08-07-2009

Europe seen from space at nightWell, maybe ubiquitous global surveillance isn’t all bad. Remember that big load of tanks and armaments that Somalian pirates scored from a Ukranian cargo ship and subsequently ransomed back? Well, two magazine reporters used commercial imaging satellites to chase down their final destination, proving in the process that they were en route to the breakaway government of South Sudan:

Images captured by DigitalGlobe satellites in March 2009 showed 33 tanks parked at Kahawa Barracks northeast of Nairobi. In parallel, satellite imagery captured from southern Sudan showed tracked vehicles, parked under camouflage, at a Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) compound northeast of Juba, the capital of South Sudan. Jane’s observed that SPLA attempts to conceal the location “were deliberate and masterful, but dimensional analysis, tracked-vehicle scarring and the staging of three vehicles in a tactical perimeter established the concealed vehicles as tanks.”

It’s not particularly good news – governments tooling up for nasty regional conflicts never is – but it’s the sort of news we’re better off having than not. Maybe the UN should be funding more similar satellites so as to keep an eye on governments who are somewhat economical with the truth about their military build-ups? [image by woodleywonderworks]

Maybe we could use them to keep Obama and Medvedev honest with regards to their nuclear disarmament agreement… provided the whole thing isn’t a carefully orchestrated publicity play in the first place, natch.

Smart surveillance doesn’t bother you with trivia

Paul Raven @ 12-06-2009

surreal surveillance warning signsWhat could be better than complete panopticon-level surveillance over everything you own? Well, surveillance that only bothers you with issues you really want to know about, and which doesn’t send you an SMS every time the neighbour’s cat rubs itself against the garage door, of course!

The main difference with the Archerfish system is that alerts you by text or video footage only when certain “events” occur, which you define. Alerts can be sent to your cell or similar mobile device, as an email or to a customised web portal.

Unlike more conventional systems, you don’t need to monitor video around-the-clock or trawl through footage or rely on motion alarms.

Using a combination of video cameras, intelligent software (Smartbox) and a custom web portal (SmartPortal), Archerfish watches your premises for “events”. They can be defined as person, vehicle, intelligent object motion or external sensor trigger. This means the system can tell the difference between a human being and inanimate object like a car passing the camera.

At the same time, if the camera is triggered by human movement, you can check to see whether it’s a family member, an intruder or a delivery. You can also check live video through the SmartPortal, as long as you have access to a PC or web-enabled device.

Well, that’s a doozy… provided that you’re willing to trust the software not to goof. And that you’re willing to upgrade the software regularly. And that you’re willing to believe that no one will ever find a way to futz the cameras, or hack the backline hardware via that web portal… but other than that, complete peace of mind! Ain’t technology wonderful? [image by Cory Doctorow]

Google grenades the ebook punchbowl

Paul Raven @ 03-06-2009

I dare say that if you’ve an interest in publishing as an industry, you’ve already heard that Google has announced its own ebook store will open late this year. A summary from Tomorrow’s Trends:

Google stated that it will allow publishers to set eBook prices.  The cost of the eBook will probably be higher than Amazon’s current eBook prices.

This will certainly start a format war.  Google does not have a dedicated eBook reader and I do not see them getting into the eBook hardware game.  This will push companies to create eBook readers that will connect to Google’s new store. Certainly Amazon is ahead of everyone in regards to ease of use and the ability to download eBooks via a wireless connection.  Hopefully this will give all of us multiple choices on purchasing eBooks.

Credit where it’s due, the Big G knows the value of biding its time for the right moment. This is the game-changing announcement that I’ve been expecting for the last nine months, the potential trigger for an explosive growth phase in ebook hardware and distribution. An analogy to digital music seems appropriate: the Kindle and the Sony Reader are your iPod equivalents, tied to specific content-buying channels and/or file formats to keep the profits as close to their makers (and their partners) as possible. Now the ubiquitous Google is getting in on the game of selling the content, savvy tech firms will be watching closely to see which file format wins the popularity war, before starting to churn out affordable generic readers that can display them without restriction.

Now, as discussed before, ebooks are probably never going to be as big a deal as downloadable music has become (though one can dream, right?), but I’m confident that this will be the tipping point at which another content market suddenly leaps into the digital domain. Hopefully by Christmas time this year I’ll be able to get a decent eInk device that doesn’t lock me in to one content provider, just like my charmingly generic media player…

Charles Stross on the future of gaming

Paul Raven @ 14-05-2009

Star Wars MMO game screenshotThe Zeitgeist strikes again – it appears that this week is going to throw up lots of stuff about computer gaming. Here’s a counterpoint to Sven’s dispatch; a transcript of a keynote speech that Charlie Stross gave to the LOGIN 2009 games industry conference yesterday.

In the next five years we can expect semiconductor development to proceed much as it has in the previous five years: there’s at least one more generation of miniaturization to go in chip fabrication, and that’s going to feed our expectations of diminishing power consumption and increasing performance for a few years. There may well be signs of a next-generation console war. And so on. This isn’t news.

One factor that’s going to come into play is the increasing cost of semiconductor fab lines. As the resolution of a lithography process gets finer, the cost of setting up a fab line increases — and it’s not a linear relationship. A 22nm line is going to cost a lot more than a 33nm line, or a 45nm one. It’s the dark shadow of Moore’s Law: the cost per transistor on a chip may be falling exponentially, but the fabs that spit them out are growing pricier by a similar ratio.

Something like this happened, historically, in the development of the aerospace industry. Over the past thirty years, we’ve grown used to thinking of the civil aerospace industry as a mature and predictable field, dominated by two huge multinationals and protected by prohibitive costs of entry. But it wasn’t always so.

Go read the whole thing; Stross swiftly and plausibly draws a line from the present to the future two decades hence, a future where the audience demographics for gaming have shifted to include the vast majority of the population, and the technology platforms that games run on are small, portable and ubiquitous. [image by st3f4n]

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