Freemors Blog

Musings of an East Coast Techie
Posts tagged as free software

He who controls the server and software 'owns' the device

2016-04-05 by Freemor

With recent articles like this and this, I felt it was important to point out the golden thread running through these. Which boils down to one thing. "He who controls the software and/or server controls the device" at least in devices like these.

When buying a product that is Internet ready or Internet connected it is very important for people to ask the question "What happens if the Internet part goes away?"

For some products it's no biggie, like say a media player that downloads from a specific site, but also let you put your own music on. In this case the Internet part is more of a "Value added" piece then an mandatory one.

Then there are things like the Google Chromecast. If the Internet back end goes away because Google decides to move to ChromeCast V3.0 and not support earlier ones, then the device will become a brick. useless. And due to the lack of software freedom in these devices there is nothing the owner can do.

This same thing is true of an ever increasing number of products. Especially as we move into the whole "Internet of Things" (IoT) world. One of the reasons that businesses are so hot on the IoT idea is the reach it gives them over the product. This was seen with Kindle when amazon reached into thousands of devices and Erased the book 1984.

There are two separate issues at play here:

The "ownership" of the device hinges on these two things. Lets look at each of them.

Who controls the software

If you do not control the software on the device, then it controls you. You do not own that device. The person that controls the software owns it.

When I talk about control I am not talking about how "Usable" the software is. I'm talking about the users ability to Change, modify, study, etc. the software on the device.

If you can't change the software at all them you have absolutely no control.

If you can swap one opaque mass of software for another opaque mass of software you have the limited illusion of control

Only when you can Study the software to see how it works, Change it to work the way you want it to, Share the changes you've made and have the freedom to use the software in any way you choose do you truly control the device.

Sadly an ever decreasing number of devices fall into this category. Even many devices that appear free, like the Raspberry Pi, are actually Not truly so due to the fact that they can not work without some opaque bit of software. In the case of the Raspberry Pi it is impossible to boot the device without software that is not in your control.

Who controls the server

This question is either of slightly less or equal importance to the "ownership" of the device based on what the server bit does.

If the server bit is strictly "Value added", as in the device will continue to function completely without the server. Then the question is a minor one.

However increasingly, and by design, devices will not function if the server is gone.

Now if you have freedom in the software as mentioned above. It wouldn't be an issue. You or someone else could study the software, change it to use a different server or to not need the server and then share that change to the world. Problem solved.

Sadly as mentioned above it is a rare device where that can be done. Partly because most software licenses prevent you from doing any of those and thus from using the software any way you want

So lacking freedom in the software and being tied to a server that you don't control means that not only can you not fix, or modify the device, you are now entirely at the whim of the person that controls the server. What if the server says to delete all your stuff? Nothing you can do. The device wont work without the server so you can't prevent it from connecting and once it does bang your stuff is gone.

It goes well beyond just deleting your stuff. The server could push out an update that kills the device. Now it wont even turn on. Or they could just shut down the sever, Again you're stuck with a useless device. It is also important to remember that the connection to the server is a two way street and can be used to spy on anything you do with or near the device, as Windows 10 does and it looks like Occulus Rift will.

As the whole IoT thing takes off this is going to become a huge issue and one that customers need to pay attention to. An IoT fridge that you do not control could be remotely told to not keep food cold anymore when the manufacturer decides it is time for you to buy a new one.

Think that is far fetched? There have been printer out there for years now that decide to stop working based on a software counter in the printer. There is absolutely nothing mechanically wrong with them the software just decides "Sorry I'm done.. go buy a new printer". If manufacturers are willing to screw with you like this how much more so when they can reach over the network and do what ever they like to your device?

So the next time you buy an electronic device ask, Who controls the software? Is the server part "Value added" or mandatory? Can I change the software? Can I run my own server? And ultimately, Do I want to buy a device I will not "own or control".