Connectivity

New Rights to Hack Digital Devices Could Make Us Safer

Copyright exemptions make it legal to tinker with our own digital toys, and security researchers will be first to take advantage.

Nov 1, 2016

It may seem unfathomable, but until this week you ran the risk of litigation if you tried to modify many of your digital devices. But thanks to a change in the law, there are now wider rights to tinker.

The barrier to inquisitive minds has been the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Kyle Wiens, the CEO of gadget-repair site iFixit, recently wrote about the particularly obstructive part of the Act for MIT Technology Review:

Back in 1998, Congress’s goal was to prevent scary hacker-types on that new-fangled Internet thing from mainlining pirated movies directly into their eyeballs. So lawmakers wrote an anti-circumvention clause (Section 1201) into the new law, which prohibits users from breaking the digital locks—like DRM or encryption—that protect copyrighted content.

The upshot: manufacturers were able to add a digital lock to any software-containing product (read: pretty much any hardware). Break it to reverse-engineer code or make modifications and its maker could sue, pleading a breach of Section 1201. Which they did.

But as Wired reports, a series of new exemptions to the act, among them allowing security research and repairs to vehicular digital systems, mean that many devices can be hacked once more. The exemption is only a two-year trial, and there are some appropriate-sounding caveats in place, too. Research, for instance, mustn't put anyone at harm, and must be carried out in a “controlled environment” on devices owned by the hacker.

For the most part, it will be security researchers that get to take advantage of the changed rules. Fiddling with a device at home may have been technically illegal, but in many cases the manufacturer would never find out. Researchers, however, choose to publish findings such as flaws and vulnerabilities as widely as possible, so the exemptions will allow them to do so without fear of prosecution.

Perhaps counterintuitively, widening rights to hack could keep us all a little safer.

(Read more: Wired, “How Copyright Law Stifles Your Right to Tinker with Tech”)