What began with printers and spread to phones is coming to everything: this kind of technology has proliferated to smart thermostats (no apps that let you turn your AC cooler when the power company dials it up a couple degrees), tractors (no buying your parts from third-party companies), cars (no taking your GM to an independent mechanic), and many categories besides.

All these forms of cheating treat the owner of the device as an enemy of the company that made or sold it, to be thwarted, tricked, or forced into con­ducting their affairs in the best interest of the com­pany’s shareholders. To do this, they run programs and processes that attempt to hide themselves and their nature from their owners, and proxies for their owners (like reviewers and researchers).

Increasingly, cheating devices behave differ­ently depending on who is looking at them. When they believe themselves to be under close scrutiny, their behavior reverts to a more respectable, less egregious standard.
The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (1986) makes it a crime, with jail-time, to violate a company’s terms of service. Logging into a website under a fake ID to see if it behaves differently depending on who it is talking to is thus a potential felony, provided that doing so is banned in the small-print clickthrough agreement when you sign up.

Then there’s section 1201 of the Digital Millen­nium Copyright Act (1998), which makes it a felony to bypass the software controls access to a copy­righted work. Since all software is copyrightable, and since every smart gadget contains software, this allows manufacturers to threaten jail-terms for anyone who modifies their tractors to accept third-party carburetors (just add a software-based check to ensure that the part came from John Deere and not a rival), or changes their phone to accept an independent app store, or downloads some code to let them choose generic insulin for their implanted insulin pump.

Cory Doctorow