31 January 2006

Who owns your data? or your computer, for that matter?

Most people who know me personally, know that I work with and on computers. I think that most assume that I have wizard-like powers over Windows - but that only comes up when the ask me how to do X, Y or Z. Nothing could be further from the truth: I use and run a Linux-derived OS for most all of my day-to-day computing needs.


The reasons are many - and at some point I'll explore the issue of I don't want an OS that gets in my way as that is important to me - but I've always kept coming back to who owns your data?, as that is an issue every computer owner should think about. If you're using an application that saves the text that you write, the numbers that you input, or other data you provide into an unknown and undocumented file format that keeps you from using your data as you see fit, then the answer to that question is I don't own my data. In my book that's an untenable situation.


And don't say it doesn't matter - I have files that are between 15 and 20 years old. Some of it is computer code in fortran, but the other is the text of my Master's thesis, marked up in TeX. All of it simple, well understood, ASCII text. And all of the original data I used. Had I used Wordstar or other now-long-since-dead word processor, that text may well have been locked away forever. And yes, that's TeX, not LaTeX!


A newer thought - who owns your computer - is a related question. You paid a pretty penny for that shiny new computer, and you certainly do pay for your internet connectivity, and you pay for your software - you do purchase your software, right? - but then to have that software turn around and bite you squarely on your ass is an insult. Cory Doctorow over at boingboing.net is shining a light upon Starforce, a copy protection software that some purchased games surreptitiously install on your Windows system. A set of device drivers that can in certain circumstances cause hardware failure of certain multi-speed CD/DVD writers, as they're designed to stop you from making a copy of the CD/DVD. Even a legitimate backup copy.


Yes, they shouldn't have to worry about getting their titles pirated and illegitimate copies made. But you, as the computer owner shouldn't have to worry if the software you install will result in system instability or hardware failure. Using such a protection scheme is extraordinarily disrespectful treatment of people who are paying customers. To me that is just unacceptable.


Apparently not satisfied with installing drivers that may play havoc with your computer's hardware, it seems that the fine people of Starforce resort to legal threats to keep people from saying bad things about their software. Given that this is my first encounter with Starforce, I'm not impressed.


Caveat emptor, my friends, caveat emptor.

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