Skip to main content

The New Software Morality

When, two years ago, Microsoft purchased Romanian anti-virus vendor, GeCAD, as part of its Trustworthy Computing initiative, I warned the result might lead to a queue of anti-trust lawyers gathering around the Capitol building in Washington, as the thriving and lucrative anti-virus industry protested at the very notion of Microsoft including better security in its products.

Time has passed and the mutters of discontent seemed to have subsided following diplomatic expressions of co-existence with the Redmond giant from the largest Anti-virus companies. However, this month, Europe decided that the prospect of Microsoft marketing consumer security was an oxymoron that demanded further investigation and the Brussels anti-trust regulators have reportedly invited Symantec to volunteer its opinions on Microsoft OneCare a plan for comprehensive, subscription-based consumer PC health check service that will offer automatically updated anti-virus, anti-spyware and firewall protection.

There is however a moral slant on this story that makes me uncomfortable. In a rational world, a company, such a Microsoft, which many would regard as directly or indirectly responsible for the mess we now find ourselves in, might reasonably be expected to offer inclusive measures that would make the Windows platform more robust from a security perspective. Two years ago after a number of conversations with people at Microsoft, I was fairly satisfied that a number of people in the Trustworthy Computing group, would have been quite happy to bundle better and better security into Windows entirely free of charge. “The trouble is”, one person told me, “is that the anti-virus industry would scream anti-trust if we did. We would have to charge”, he said, referring to GEcAD, “because the rules won’t let us give it away free.”

Whether Microsoft has changed its position and would now prefer to milk the consumer instead I don’t know but I doubt it. In my own experience, Microsoft wants to be able to deliver the best possible security to the weakest link in its business, the millions upon millions of consumers who are unwittingly breeding tens of thousands of botnets and other nasties that threaten the economic fabric of the internet on a daily basis. But if I’m right, Microsoft can’t because the law won’t allow it for free software when you are as big as they are.

In some way, this is rather like saying that if you buy a new house; the builder is not permitted to make it burglar-proof. Of course you can have basic locks but double-glazing is certainly not permitted, neither is an inclusive burglar or fire-alarm. You have to go to the aftermarket for these and perhaps pay through the nose on a subscription basis if you want any peace of mind.

Without a doubt, Microsoft, through previous anti-trust actions which very nearly saw it broken-up, has created a moral dilemma which the courts cannot easily resolve. Instead, through vigorously protecting society against the risks of a software monopoly, the courts have unwittingly created something approaching a cartel of commercial security interests which run contrary to the interests of a billion or so internet users.

In theory, internet security should be free and transparent to the end user in much the same way as one takes for granted one’s television or telephone won’t be hacked. But this is an industry now worth in excess of $20 billion annually and it’s not one that you can expect to be given away to the man in the street or even Microsoft without a fight.


Popular posts from this blog

A Christmas Tale

It’s pitch blackness in places along the sea wall this evening and I'm momentarily startled by a small dog with orange flashing yuletide antlers along the way. I’m the only person crazy enough to be running and I know the route well enough to negotiate it in the dark, part of my Christmas exercise regime and a good way of relieving stress.

Why stress you might ask. After all, it is Christmas Day.

True but I’ve just spent over two hours assembling the giant Playmobil ‘Pony Farm’ set when most other fathers should be asleep in front of the television.

I was warned that the Playmobil ‘Pirate Ship’ had driven some fathers to drink or suicide and now I understand why. If your eyesight isn’t perfect or if you’ve had a few drinks with your Christmas lunch then it’s a challenge best left until Boxing day but not an option if you happen to have a nine year old daughter who wants it ready to take horses by tea time.

Perhaps I should stick to technology but then, the instruc…

A Matter of Drones - Simon Moores for The Guardian

I have a drone on my airfield” – a statement that welcomes passengers to the latest dimension in air-travel disruption. Words of despair from the chief operating officer of Gatwick airport in the busiest travel week of the year. Elsewhere, many thousands of stranded and inconvenienced passengers turned in frustration to social media in an expression of crowd-sourced outrage.

How could this happen? Why is it still happening over 12 hours after Gatwick’s runways were closed to aircraft, why is an intruder drone – or even two of them – suspended in the bright blue sky above the airport, apparently visible to security staff and police who remain quite unable to locate its source of radio control?

Meanwhile, the UK Civil Aviation Authority, overtaken by both the technology and events, is reduced to sending out desperate tweets warning that an airport incursion is a criminal offence and that drone users should follow their new code of conduct. Yet this is not an unforeseen event. It was i…

An Ockham of Gatwick

The 13th century theologian and philosopher, William of Ockham, who once lived in his small Surrey village, not so very far from what is today, the wide concrete expanse of Gatwick airport is a frequently referenced source of intellectual reason. His contribution to modern culture was Ockham’s Razor, which cautions us when problem solving, that “The explanation requiring the fewest assumptions is most likely to be correct;” sound advice which constantly proves to be true.

A week further-on since Britain’s second busiest airport was bought to a complete standstill by two or perhaps two hundred different drone sightings, it is perhaps time to revisit William of Ockham’s maxim, rather than be led astray by an increasingly bizarre narrative, one which has led Surrey police up several blind alleys with little or nothing in the way of measurable results.

 Exploring the possibilities with a little help in reasoning from our medieval friar, we appear to have a choice of two different account…