Thursday 27 October 2016

Ransomware (no, not that sort)

Yes, there is malicious software out there that encrypts files on your computer and directs you to a web page where, for a fee, you can buy the decryption key.  Or just restore from a recent backup  (you do make backups, right?)  But that's not what I'm here to talk about tonight.

Closed-source software vendors are holding their customers to ransom.  If you don't buy the latest version of their products, you won't be able to read anyone else's documents if they have upgraded to the latest version.  But what is especially galling is where electronically-identical hardware appliances have features enabled or disabled purely by software.

Imagine it's the early days of colour TV broadcasting, and a TV shop is selling two similar sets; they have the same size CRTs, but one is monochrome and the other is  (a)  colour and  (b)  twice the price.  Now of course you want a colour set, to take advantage of the new broadcasts.  Then your neighbour comes into the shop and buys one of the mono sets.  This finally convinces you to pay the extra for the colour set.

A few days later, you pop round to visit your neighbour.  And you have a look at their telly.  It looks a lot like yours -- except it's mono.  Your neighbour returns from the kitchen.  Would you like to have a look inside?  And so they pop the back off, for you to appreciate the works.

Inside it is a full colour set.  Colour decoder, delay line, the full Monty.  But it has been modified by adding just two short wire links, shorting together the drives to the red, green and blue electron guns; so that whichever one is trying to turn its own beam on, ends up turning on all three together, producing white light.

The manufacturers can obviously turn a profit selling the sets at the lower price.  And yet, for no reason save greed and meanness of spirit, they deliberately introduce a fault so that sell perfectly-functioning sets at a premium.

This is exactly what often happens with proprietary software-driven devices.  All the bits are present in a cheap one, that would be required to do the job of a more expensive one; yet the software has been told not to allow them to do it.  Only, the manufacturers' vandalism in this case is rather less obvious than just a few extra bits of wire soldered in.

We are being held to ransom.  And now the mindset that believes this behaviour to be acceptable has, unfortunately, become ingrained in our politicians, things seem unlikely to change in the immediate future.

Only true hackers can save us now.

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