- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 22, 2007

Today, with word that the Australian government spent $84 million to write software to protect children from pornography, we have another lesson in the futility of trying to store water in a sieve.

Sure enough, a 16-year-old named Tom Wood promptly cracked the software in half an hour, according to ZDNet Australia.

Does that make his time worth $168 million an hour? Who are we kidding? Even though the Australian government was giving the software gratis to parents and libraries and such, could anyone possibly think kids wouldn”t find an unprotected computer? Even if the software worked, it wouldn”t work. Maybe someone just wanted to sell a program for $84 million.

It seems that the adult world hasn”t grasped the powers of a powerful teenage mind running on Jolt Cola and Cheetos. This is not a trivial matter for a music industry that wants to stop illegal downloading of copyright music.

Says ZDNet, “After circumventing the filter in half an hour, Mr. Wood claims to have broken a second version of the porn-blocking software … within 40 minutes.”

The incident illustrates two important reasons why efforts to restrict uses of the Internet have been so routinely unsuccessful. The first is that the would-be controllers have few advantages over the crackers, but suffer major disadvantages. Yes, the recording industry can hire first-rate programmers to try to invent copyright-protection schemes. However, on a thickly populated planet there are — what? Millions, probably, — of programmers out there who would like to break the protection.

As one example, reflect that college students tend to be anarchists. Some of it is late-adolescent rebelliousness. Some is a philosophical belief that information belongs to nobody. As a consequence you have lots of very smart kids at places like Berkeley and MIT who regard breaking protection as a mixture of challenge and social duty. These young people are as smart as anyone the music industry can hire, and there are many more of them.

The second point is that programming is a young man”s game. (The notorious breakers have mostly been teenage boys.) Why is this so? Because programming, to include hacking, requires high intelligence but little knowledge. This makes it very different from, say, medicine. A med student has to absorb vast amounts of anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, pharmacology, and on and on. Kids of 16 can”t do it.

But a smart teenager can learn the comparatively small amount of information needed to program. The rest is razor logic and tight focus. The quite young can do this just fine.

Further, the Internet allows them to work in hunting packs if they are so disposed. I once watched some collegiate juniors trying to break protection on a commercial CD. This was in Virginia, but we”d get e-mails from schools across the country saying things like, “The post-encryption routine wants some kind of token, looks to be eight-bit. ” (I made that up but I think it”s pretty close.) The result is a sort of swarm attack by cooperative pirates.

This has been the story with attempt after attempt to shut down the downloading of music, the copying of CDs, and now anti-porn software. Somebody even cracked the Oxford English Dictionary, which is a little more exotic than “Elvis” Greatest Hits.” Kids in their teens or barely more set up Napster, the first music-sharing program, cracked DVD encryption, and so on. Is there any reason to think the industries will find a silver bullet? I doubt it. If they could have, they would have by now.

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