Who owns your computer, and more importantly, can you trust it?

Operating systems and software manage the usability of machines by Andrea Monti – Originally published in Italian by Infosec.News

Adobe announces the end of Flash Player and that it will block content based on this standard, which is considered inherently unsafe and the subject of constant security updates.

It is a subject for another article to investigate why it was possible to allow such software (and those of other manufacturers) to burden and weaken computers around the world . For the time being, we are interested in the relationship between obsolescence management, licensing, the ‘ownership’ of a computer (or a smartphone or a tablet, or – when the IoT will, unfortunately, become a reality – any household appliance).

In short: buying a computer does not mean becoming its owner, because its usability depends on the strategies of operating systems and software’s producers to keep it running. The subject is certainly not new (Richard Stallman wrote about it at the dawn of free software), but today it has reached worrying dimensions.

There is no need to be a techie to wonder how many of the ‘innovations’ made to software and operating systems that have put correctly working computers out of business are such, and how many, instead, are just a way to dope a market that would otherwise be less substantial. Moreover, I also wonder why, even though I have paid up to the last penny for dozens of user licences for the software I use, it is no longer possible to install them because the manufacturers have disabled remote activation and do not provide an alternative possibility.

Out of curiosity, I tried installing Windows 2000, Lotus WordPro and Corel Wordperfect Law Office Suite 2000 in a virtual machine and using it in the daily practice. I was able to work without problems in the vast majority of cases, except for those requiring ‘modern’ formats or browsers with advanced features. Similarly, if I had not had a backup of the operating system, I would have had to throw away a couple of old, but still perfectly fit for purpose iPads. I had to throw away a laptop that was only a couple of years old because there was no way I could get a quote from Asus to replace the motherboard.

Why do I need a machine with a weightlifter power if I have to lift a feather or so? Why can’t I use an object that I paid for (and that is mine) ‘only’ because whoever is in charge of the operating system has decided that I cannot? Why am I not entitled to a fair price repair of an object still in the middle of its life cycle?

What about security?, the disinterested modernist at all costs might ask, using old software exposes you to untold dangers!. Yes, because using the latest applications and hardware guarantees no problems, as demonstrated by the list of vulnerabilities that grows ‘terrifyingly’ every day. Besides, how many people feel safe knowing that their computer is continuously analysed by ‘telemetry’, ‘performance reports’, ‘auto update’ and so on? Moreover, how many realise the importance, for security purposes, of only going online when you need to? I understand that this last option seems incomprehensible to those who were born with flat Internet accesses. In the early days of the Net, however, when a connection cost a kidney, the standard operating procedure was to work with the modem switched off, prepare everything in advance, connect for the bare minimum and switch everything off. Economy and security. Is it so essential to be always on?

“But in the end,’ the modernist might insist, ‘what do you need obsolete hardware for? Buy it back and stop living in the past!” I could hardly be enrolled in the Luddite or Technological Pauperism parties. However, I realise that the availability of technology does not mean having to use it at all costs, uncritically and without any real awareness of its limitations.

Moreover, it is hard to understand why, in the name of modernism at all costs, a substantial part of the family, professional, and corporate budget should be allocated to updating hardware and software to meet vendors’ needs rather than those of users.

Among the many laws and bills that, often inappropriately, would be enacted to ‘regulate the network’, two would be of the utmost importance. The first should impose standard formats and drivers, prohibiting ‘incompatibility by design’, which forces us to throw objects that are still perfectly suitable for the purpose into the bin (the real one, not the desktop one). The second should establish the automatic liability of software houses for putting vulnerable or inefficient products on the market, with a penalty to be demanded immediately, upon becoming aware of the vulnerability, subject to restitution of the sum after the appropriate checks.

However, since the Parliament will never pass such laws, the only short-term option is to use free software. They may not be any more secure than their proprietary equivalents, but at least they leave the computer in the hands of those who paid for it.

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