All posts filed under “Patents

Digital control round-up

An 'Apple' dongle

Mac as a giant dongle

At Coding Horror, Jeff Atwood makes an interesting point about Apple’s lock-in business model:

It’s almost first party only– about as close as you can get to a console platform and still call yourself a computer… when you buy a new Mac, you’re buying a giant hardware dongle that allows you to run OS X software.

There’s nothing harder to copy than an entire MacBook. When the dongle — or, if you prefer, the “Apple Mac” — is present, OS X and Apple software runs. It’s a remarkably pretty, well-designed machine, to be sure. But let’s not kid ourselves: it’s also one hell of a dongle.

If the above sounds disapproving in tone, perhaps it is. There’s something distasteful to me about dongles, no matter how cool they may be.

Of course, as with other dongles, there are plenty of people who’ve got round the Mac hardware ‘dongle’ requirement. Is it true to say (à la John Gilmore) that technical people interpret lock-ins (/other constraints) as damage and route around them?

Screenshot of Mukurtu archive website

Social status-based DRM

The BBC has a story about the Mukurtu Wumpurrarni-kari Archive, a digital photo archive developed by/for the Warumungu community in Australia’s Northern Territory. Because of cultural constraints, social status, gender and community background have been used to determine whether or not users can search for and view certain images:

It asks every person who logs in for their name, age, sex and standing within their community. This information then restricts what they can search for in the archive, offering a new take on DRM.

For example, men cannot view women’s rituals, and people from one community cannot view material from another without first seeking permission. Meanwhile images of the deceased cannot be viewed by their families.

It’s not completely clear whether it’s intended to help users perform self-censorship (i.e. they ‘know’ they ‘shouldn’t’ look at certain images, and the restrictions are helping them achieve that) or whether it’s intended to stop users seeing things they ‘shouldn’t’, even if they want to. I think it’s probably the former, since there’s nothing to stop someone putting in false details (but that does assume that the idea of putting in false details would be obvious to someone not experienced with computer login procedures; it may not).

While from my western point of view, this kind of social status-based discrimination DRM seems complete anathema – an entirely arbitrary restriction on knowledge dissemination – I can see that it offers something aside from our common understanding of censorship, and if that’s ‘appropriate’ in this context, then I guess it’s up to them. It’s certainly interesting.

Neverthless, imagining for a moment that there were a Warumungu community living in the EU, would DRM (or any other kind of access restriction) based on a) gender or b) social status not be illegal under European Human Rights legislation?

Disabled buttonsDisabling buttons

From Clientcopia:

Client: We don’t want the visitor to leave our site. Please leave the navigation buttons, but remove the links so that they don’t go anywhere if you click them.

It’s funny because the suggestion is such a crude way of implementing it, but it’s not actually that unlikely – a 2005 patent by Brian Shuster details a “program [that] interacts with the browser software to modify or control one or more of the browser functions, such that the user computer is further directed to a predesignated site or page… instead of accessing the site or page typically associated with the selected browser function” – and we’ve looked before at websites deliberately designed to break in certain browers and disabling right-click menus for arbitrary purposes.

Another charging opportunity?

A knife blade cutting the cable of a generic charger/adaptor

Last month, an Apple patent application was published describing a method of “Protecting electronic devices from extended unauthorized use” – effectively a ‘charging rights management’ system.

New Scientist and OhGizmo have stories explaining the system; while the stated intention is to make stolen devices less useful/valuable (by preventing a thief charging them with unauthorised chargers), readers’ comments on both stories are as cynical as one would expect: depending on how the system is implemented, it could also prevent the owner of a device from buying a non-Apple-authorised replacement (or spare) charger, or from borrowing a friend’s charger, and in this sense it could simply be another way of creating a proprietary lock-in, another way to ‘charge’ the customer, as it were.

It also looks as though it would play havoc with clever homebrew charging systems such as Limor Fried‘s Minty Boost (incidentally the subject of a recent airline security débâcle) and similar commercial alternatives such as Mayhem‘s Anycharge, although these are already defeated by a few devices which require special drivers to allow charging.

Reading Apple’s patent application, what is claimed is fairly broad with regard to the criteria for deciding whether or not re-charging should be allowed – in addition to charger-identification-based methods (i.e. the device queries the charger for a unique ID, or the charger provides it, perhaps modulated with the charging waveform) there are methods involving authentication based on a code provided to the original purchaser (when you plug in a charger the device has never ‘seen’ before, it asks you for a security code to prove that you are a legitimate user), remote disabling via connection to a server, or even geographically-based disabling (using GPS: if the device goes outside of a certain area, the charging function will be disabled).

All in all, this seems an odd patent. Apple’s (patent attorneys’) rather hyperbolic statement (Description, 0018) that:

These devices (e.g., portable electronic devices, mechanical toys) are generally valuable and/or may contain valuable data. Unfortunately, theft of more popular electronic devices such as the Apple iPod music-player has become a serious problem. In a few reported cases, owners of the Apple iPod themselves have been seriously injured or even murdered.

…is no doubt true to some extent, but if the desire is really to make a stolen iPod worthless, then I would have expected Apple to lock each device in total to a single user – not even allowing it to be powered up without authentication. Just applying the authentication to the charging method seems rather arbitrary. (It’s also interesting to see the description of “valuable data”: surely in the case that Apple is aware that a device has been stolen, it could provide the legitimate owner of the device with all his or her iTunes music again, since the marginal copying cost is zero. And if the stolen device no longer functions, the RIAA need not panic about ‘unauthorised’ copies existing! But I doubt that’s even entered into any of the thinking around this.)

Whether or not the motives of discouraging theft are honourable or worthwhile, there is the potential for this sort of measure to cause signficant inconvenience and frustration for users (and second-hand buyers, for example – if the device doesn’t come with the original charger or the authentication code) along with incurring extra costs, for little real ‘theft deterrent’ benefit. How long before the ‘security’ system is cracked? A couple of months after the device is released? At that point it will be worth stealing new iPods again.

(Many thanks to Michael O’Donnell of PDD for letting me know about this!)

Previously on the blog: Friend or foe? Battery authentication ICs

UPDATE: Freedom to Tinker has now picked up this story too, with some interesting commentary.

Review: We Know What You Want by Martin Howard

A couple of weeks ago, Martin Howard sent me details of his blog, How They Change Your Mind and book, We Know What You Want: How They Change Your Mind, published last year by Disinformation. You can review the blog for yourselves – it has some fascinating details on product placement, paid news segments, astroturfing and other attempts to manipulate public opinion for political and commercial reasons, including “10 disturbing trends in subliminal persuasion” – but I’ve been reading the book, and there are some interesting ‘architectures of control’ examples:

Supermarket layouts

We’ve seen before some of the tricks used by stores to encourage customers to spend longer in certain aisles and direct them to certain products, but Howard’s book goes into more detail on this, including a couple of telling quotes:

“About 80 percent of consumer choices are made in store and 60 percent of those are impulse purchases.”
Herb Meyers, CEO Gerstman + Meyers, NY

“We want you to get lost.”
Tim Magill, designer, Mall of America

Planograms, the designed layout and positioning of products within stores for optimum sales, are discussed, with the observation that (more expensive) breakfast cereals, toys and sweets are often placed at children’s eye level specifically to make the most of ‘pester power’; aromas designed to induce “appropriate moods” are often used, along with muzak with its tempo deliberately set to encourage or discourage customers’ prolonged browsing. There’s also a mention of stores deliberately rearranging their layouts to force customers to walk around more trying to find their intended purchases, thus being exposed to more product lines:

“Some stores actually switch the layout every six months to intentionally confuse shoppers.”

The book also refers readers to a detailed examination of supermarket tactics produced by the Waterloo Public Interest Research Group in Ontario, The Supermarket Tour [PDF] which I’ll be reading and reporting on in due course. It looks to have an in-depth analysis of psychological and physical design techniques for manipulating customers’ behaviour.

Monopolistic behaviour

Howard looks at the exploitation of ‘customers’ caught up in mass-crowds or enclosed systems, such as people visiting concerts or sports where they cannot easily leave the stadium or arena or have time, space or quiet to think for themselves, and are thus especially susceptible to subliminal (or not-so-subliminal) advertising and manipulation of their behaviour, even down to being forced into paying through the nose for food or drink thanks to a monopoly (‘stadium pouring rights’):

“One stadium even hindered fans from drinking [free] water by designing their stadium without water fountains. A citizens’ protest pressured the management into having them installed.”

Patents

The ‘remote nervous system manipulation’ patents of Hendricus Loos (which I previously mentioned here and here, having first come across them back in 2001) are explained together with a whole range of other patents detailing methods of controlling individuals’ behaviour, from the more sinister, e.g. remotely altering brain waves (PDF link, Robert G Malech, 1976) to the merely irritating (methods for hijacking users’ browsers and remotely changing the function of commands – Brian Shuster, 2002/5) and even a Samsung patent (1995) which involves using a TV’s built-in on-screen display to show adverts for a few seconds when the user tries to switch the TV off.

A number of these patents are worth further investigation, and I will attempt to do so at some point.

The book itself

We Know What You Want is a quick, concise, informative read with major use of magazine/instructional-style graphics to draw issues out of the text. It was apparently written to act as a more visual companion volume to Douglas Rushkoff’s Coercion, which I haven’t (yet) read, so I can’t comment on how well that relationship works. But it’s an interesting survey of some of the techniques used to persuade and manipulate in retailing, media, online and in social situations. It’s easy to dip into at random, and the wide-ranging diversity of practices and techniques covered (from cults to music marketing, Dale Carnegie to MLM) somehow reminds me of Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders, even if the design and format of this book (with its orange-and-black colour scheme and extensive clipart) is completely different.

I’ll end on a stand-out quote from the book, originally applied to PR but appropriate to the whole field of manipulating behaviour:

“It is now possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing it.”
Edward Bernays

Speed control designed to help the user

A keyboard with a customisable extended character pad that I modelled back in 2000 - this was done in an early 1990s UNIX version of AutoCAD, and it shows!

Something with an interesting ‘forcing function’ story has been right in front of me all this time: the QWERTY keyboard, developed by Christopher Sholes and then Remington, with the intention of controlling the user’s behaviour. Until typists became proficient with the QWERTY system, the non-alphabetical layout with deliberate, if arbitrary, separation of common letters allowed the maximum typing speed to be slowed to something approaching writing speed, which reduced the amount of keys sticking and thus benefited both the manufacturer (less product failure, fewer complaints) and the customer (less product failure, less irritation). It also locked users who learned on a Remington QWERTY typewriter into staying with that system (and manufacturer, at least until the patents expired).

Whether or not QWERTY is a real example of market failure (in the sense that it’s an ‘inefficient’ system which nevertheless came to dominate, through self-reinforcing path-dependence, network effects, lock-in, etc), it’s an interesting design example of a commonplace architecture of control where the control function has long become obsolete as the configuration becomes the default way of designing the product.

Would designers today dare to create anything so deliberately idiosyncratic (even if clever) for mass consumption? (Systems that have evolved collaboratively to create complex, powerful results, such as UNIX, probably don’t count here.) The individualistic interfaces of some 1990s modelling software (e.g. Alias StudioTools, Form Z, Lightwave) which required a significant learning investment, were presumably designed with making the user experience easier “once you got used to it” (hence not really architectures of control) but have increasingly fallen by the wayside as the ‘standard’ GUI model has become so commonplace.

Today’s architecture of control is more likely to be something more robust against the user’s adaptation: if for some reason it was desirable to limit the speed at which users typed today, it’s more likely we’d have a keyboard which limited the rate of text input electronically, with a buffer and deliberate delay and no way for the user to learn to get round the system. Indeed, it would probably report the user if he or she tried to do so. Judging by the evidence of the approaches to control through DRM, such a wilfully obstructive design seems more likely.

Returning to the idea of slowing down users for their own benefit, as commenter ‘Apertome’ points out on Squublog:

“One way in which some such designs [i.e. architectures of control] can be GOOD is when mountain biking – a lot of times, they’ll put a tight curve before an obstacle to force you to slow down.”

Note how this is a somewhat different practice to deliberately reducing visibility at junctions: using a bend to slow down a rider before an obstacle does not impede riders who are already travelling at a lower speed, while it makes the higher-speed riders slow down and hence keeps them safe, whereas wilfully removing sightlines at roundabouts would seem in many cases to work to the detriment of drivers who like to assess the road ahead well before the junction, and force all to stop instead.

Transcranial magnetic stimulation

Remote magnetic manipulation of nervous systems - Hendricus Loos
An image from Hendricus Loos’s 2001 US patent, ‘Remote Magnetic Manipulation of Nervous Systems’

In my review of Adam Greenfield‘s Everyware a couple of months ago, I mentioned – briefly – the work of Hendricus Loos, whose series of patents cover subjects including “Manipulation of nervous systems by electric fields”, “Subliminal acoustic manipulation of nervous systems”, “Magnetic excitation of sensory resonances” and “Remote magnetic manipulation of nervous systems”. A theme emerges, of which this post by Tom Coates at Plasticbag.org reminded me:

“There was one speaker at FOO this year that would literally have blown my brain away if he’d happened to have had his equipment with him. Ed Boyden talked about transcranial magnetic stimulation – basically how to use focused magnetic fields to stimulate sections of the brain and hence change behaviour. He talked about how you could use this kind of stimulation to improve mood and fight depression, to induce visual phenomena or reduce schizophrenic symptoms, hallucinations and dreams, speed up language processing, improve attention, break habits and improve creativity.

He ended by telling the story of one prominent thinker in this field who developed a wand that she could touch against a part of your head and stop you being able to talk. Apparently she used to roam around the laboratories doing this to people. She also apparently had her head shaved and tattooed with all the various areas of the brain and what direct stimulation to them (with a wand) could do to her. She has, apparently, since grown her hair. I’d love to meet her.”

Now, the direct, therapeutic usage of small-range systems such as these is very different to the discipline-at-a-distance proposed in a number of Loos’s patents (where an ‘offender’ can be incapacitated, using, e.g. a magnetic field), but both are architectures of control: systems designed to modify, restrict and control people’s behaviour.

And, I would venture to suggest, a more widespread adoption of magnetic stimulation for therapeutic uses – perhaps, in time, designed into a safe, attractive consumer product for DIY relaxation/stimulation/hallucination – is likely to lead to further experimentation and exploration of ‘control’ applications for law enforcement, crowd ‘management’, and other disciplinary uses. I think we – designers, engineers, tech people, architects, social activists, anyone who values freedom – should be concerned, but the impressive initiative of the Open-rTMS Project will at least ensure that we’re able to understand the technology.

The Privacy Ceiling

Scott Craver of the University of Binghamton has a very interesting post summarising the concept of a ‘privacy ceiling’:

“This is an economic limit on privacy violation by companies, owing to the liability of having too much information about (or control over) users.”

It’s the “control over users” that immediately makes this something especially relevant for designers and technologists to consider: that control is designed, consciously, into products and systems, but how much thought is given to the extremes of how it might be exercised, especially in conjunction with the wealth of information that is gathered on users? Read More