Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Can numbers be illegal? Should they be?

Can numbers be illegal?  We, as a society, are still figuring out the implications of the digitization of the world.  The video above shows a seemingly silly example of how bizarre the information age is becoming, but the issues are real and complex.

Many of the technologies we create reach far beyond their intended scope.  As sorcerer's apprentice, we find ourselves scrambling to keep our own creations under control.  More and more of the value that we create is intellectual property rather than physical goods.  Keeping control of these intangible creations is rather complex.   Because much of what we create is virtual, it can be represented as bits that ultimately can be represented as numbers.  When many things can be reduced to numbers, we are likely to start running into unintended collisions where unrelated things may reduce to the same number and cause conflict.  The basic issue here is our inability to separate intent, source and use of information from its representation.  It is a difficult problem.  After all what is the intent of a number?  How can we determine a number's genealogy?

I remember some time ago a group tried to test this out in a peculiar way.  Certain encryption algorithms are treated as munitions (weapons) and can not be exported from the country except in very controlled situations.  This group of people decided to attempt to organize themselves on a beach in Santa Cruz in a way that they represented the bits of an encryption algorithm just as a Russian spy satellite went over head.  Theoretically, they would be illegally exporting a weapon.  (In fact at the time of this exercise, the Russians had the same or similar encryption techniques, so it wasn't actually very significant)  They were never successful in gathering enough people to actually carry this out as far as I know, but if they did, would they be breaking the law?  On the one hand, they would be potentially illegally transferring information out of the country.  On the other hand, they were just a bunch of geeks on the beach.  Are we going to make specific configurations of people on the beach illegal?  How about orientations of cars on the road or plants in a field?  What if you accidentally created one of these patterns in your back yard?  It seems silly to expect that we can keep such things under control.

There is also big money in these numbers.  In the case of music and film, once it is digitized, all the value of these artistic creations (potentially many millions of dollars) is tied up in something that can be represented as a single, really large number.  In order to encourage the creation of more books and music and films, we need to provide the creators with some control over their works and some way for them to be fairly compensated for their use.  This has gotten us into a complicated mess of Digital Rights Management and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  Oy!

We here at Digital Diner love 3D printers and are very excited about the possibilities they create.  Of course many other people are interested in the same thing, including a fellow named Cody Wilson, who wants to distribute the information required for you to print your own weapons.  He has created a computer model that can be fed into a 3D printer to create a working gun.  See the video below for more information.  Is this a good thing or a bad thing?  Technology and opportunities often come at a cost.  It is hard to understand the implications of our creations before we create them,

I'm fairly certain that there could exist an encoding scheme whereby the position of the hairs on your arm could represent the exact text of a top secret memo or the plans to a nuclear missile.  The scheme I'm envisioning would be a very complex piece of software, but combined with a picture of your arm, or a map of the location of the hairs on your arm, it cold reconstruct particular secrets messages.  Obviously, much of the complexity would be in the software and one could argue that it contains the secrets.  But just consider the complexity of the satellite system that the Russians would have had to use to decode the encryption algorithm of geeks on the beach.  One could argue that they already had much of this secret and just needed these few bits represented by the location of the people on the beach to fill in the holes just as my computer program just needs the hairs on your arm to fill in a few blanks.

As I said at the beginning, this is a complex issue.  On the one hand we have seemingly ridiculous things like illegal colors companies patenting genes.  On the other hand we have complex issues of proliferating secrets and the protection of intellectual property.  It will likely take us some time to sort all this out.  I know it gives me a headache.