Limiting Innovation as Threat Prevention March 2012
Recently, technology futurist Cory Doctorow delivered a speech titled "The Coming War on General Computation." In the speech, Doctorow argues that legally mandated restrictions on the capabilities of computing devices to run software—and users' ability to discover and control what software is running on their devices—will become much more prolific in the future. Currently, for instance, digital-rights-management technologies are in common use to thwart the temptations stemming from the ease with which individuals can make copies of digital content. Doctorow foresees the expansion of information-technology legislation as general-purpose computers become more powerful and connected. In other words, regulators' insisting on artificial barriers for technologies to safeguard society against related threats may become a necessity in the future.
Many converging trends may make such tighter restrictions—not just on computational freedom but also on the free flow of knowledge—necessary to secure against new threats that emerging technologies might pose. For example, criminals recently attempted to use 3D-printing technology to fabricate parts for a card-skimming device that could integrate seamlessly with an ATM (automatic teller machine) to steal unsuspecting customers' personal information. Plans for such skimmers and their parts are easy to find on the internet.
Some emerging threats, though, are far more frightening. Various emerging technologies aim to provide scientists with an easier means of creating custom-designed organisms that can carry out specific useful tasks (such as refining raw materials into fuels). A number of universities are currently participating in Towards a Biological Cell Operating System, an international research project with the goal of creating easily reprogrammable cells. But people with ill intent might also use such technologies to create bioweapons—perhaps using specifications also downloadable from the internet. Authorities are already beginning to take action to suppress the spread of knowledge that people might be able to use to create such bioweapons. For example, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, a panel managed by the National Institutes of Health (Bethesda, Maryland), has asked the journals Science and Nature to restrict publication of certain details about research that created a highly transmissible form of the bird-flu virus.