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Is the Lenovo/Superfish Debacle a Call to Arms for Hacktivists?

Proposed exemptions to the DMCA could free white hats to make networked devices more secure

2 min read
Is the Lenovo/Superfish Debacle a Call to Arms for Hacktivists?
Image: Kutay Tanir/Getty Images

As Lenovo has come under fire for pre-installing on their computers the intrusive Superfish adware — and as lawsuits are now being filed against the laptop-maker for compromising its users’ security — one solution to the problem may have been given short shrift. Maybe it’s time, in other words, to release the hackers.

To be clear, nothing here should be read as an inducement to any sort of malicious hacking or other nefarious cyber-activities. The call to arms is instead to hacking in the old Homebrew Computer Club, touch-of-code-and-dab-of-solder sense. After all, when pop-up ads became a scourge of the late 1990s Internet, coders behind the smaller Opera and Mozilla browsers rolled out their pop-up blockers to restore a touch of sanity. Major commercial web browsers like Internet Explorer and Safari only rushed in after the nimbler first responders proved the consumer demand.

Over the nearly half-century of the modern amateur computing movement, makers, modders and homemade tech enthusiasts have never come up short on creative solutions to big marketplace challenges. What’s needed in response to the proliferation of Lenovo/Superfish, Samsung Smart TV, and many other security debacles in recent months is more openness and encouragement to let hackers (in the old-school sense of hackers as above) be hackers.

“It comes down to device autonomy, whether users have control over the software and hardware they run,” says Parker Higgins, director of copyright activism at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “I worry that people may lose the understanding that they deserve that kind of autonomy and that level of privacy and that entitlement to be left alone when they want to.”

In fact, just this month EFF has completed its latest round of petitions to the U.S. Copyright Office to enable exceptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act that allow for car repair that involve a car’s onboard computers, Fair Use video remixes, jailbreaking phones and tablets and modifying older video games that require authentication from servers that no longer exist.

“There’s a rulemaking process that happens every three years,” Higgins says. “Every three years you have to submit your exemptions de novo. It doesn’t carry over. We’ve gotten exemptions for jailbreaking phones in the past, and we’ve had to apply it completely from scratch this year.”

So as dry as the DMCA’s exemption-making process may be, he says, it’s still necessary to carve out spaces in the marketplace where consumers can continue to develop new and productive uses for technology whose original manufacturers might otherwise try to shut it down via claims of copyright infringement.

Higgins adds that with enough groundswell of frustration at the proliferation of adware, bloatware and consumer snooping in tech today, legislation like the Unlocking Technology Act of 2013 (which would allow for more hacking of the kind described here — but also died in committee) might one day make it onto the books.

And the reason this matters to aggrieved Lenovo or Samsung SmartTV owners (among numerous known and suspected privacy violations in consumer electronics) is that owners of these devices should be able to build and distribute their own workarounds to spyware or other unrequested and unadvertised technologies they find onerous. And maybe then some smart appliance equivalent of the popup ad blocker will bubble up to restore a touch of sanity again. 

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Metamaterials Could Solve One of 6G’s Big Problems

There’s plenty of bandwidth available if we use reconfigurable intelligent surfaces

12 min read
An illustration depicting cellphone users at street level in a city, with wireless signals reaching them via reflecting surfaces.

Ground level in a typical urban canyon, shielded by tall buildings, will be inaccessible to some 6G frequencies. Deft placement of reconfigurable intelligent surfaces [yellow] will enable the signals to pervade these areas.

Chris Philpot

For all the tumultuous revolution in wireless technology over the past several decades, there have been a couple of constants. One is the overcrowding of radio bands, and the other is the move to escape that congestion by exploiting higher and higher frequencies. And today, as engineers roll out 5G and plan for 6G wireless, they find themselves at a crossroads: After years of designing superefficient transmitters and receivers, and of compensating for the signal losses at the end points of a radio channel, they’re beginning to realize that they are approaching the practical limits of transmitter and receiver efficiency. From now on, to get high performance as we go to higher frequencies, we will need to engineer the wireless channel itself. But how can we possibly engineer and control a wireless environment, which is determined by a host of factors, many of them random and therefore unpredictable?

Perhaps the most promising solution, right now, is to use reconfigurable intelligent surfaces. These are planar structures typically ranging in size from about 100 square centimeters to about 5 square meters or more, depending on the frequency and other factors. These surfaces use advanced substances called metamaterials to reflect and refract electromagnetic waves. Thin two-dimensional metamaterials, known as metasurfaces, can be designed to sense the local electromagnetic environment and tune the wave’s key properties, such as its amplitude, phase, and polarization, as the wave is reflected or refracted by the surface. So as the waves fall on such a surface, it can alter the incident waves’ direction so as to strengthen the channel. In fact, these metasurfaces can be programmed to make these changes dynamically, reconfiguring the signal in real time in response to changes in the wireless channel. Think of reconfigurable intelligent surfaces as the next evolution of the repeater concept.

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