Monday, February 2, 2009

Cable Television: The New Frontier of Hacking?

The one time I went to a cable television trade show, the word of the week was "convergence." Anyone vulnerable to Comcast advertising (with AT&T is a close second place), knows that this was no mere act of speculative cheerleading. Comcast now wants to hook you up with an all-purpose package that will take care of your television viewing (including VTR and on-demand services), Internet connection, and good old-fashioned telephony (now voice-over-IP). This is all held together by "software glue," with the promise that the components will be come more and more interoperable (which is what makes it all "convergent"). Thus, you will be able to use your Internet connection to program your VTR, have the material you programmed streamed to your laptop, listen to your telephone's voice mail, and no end of other stuff on which you can spend money that you probably do not have right now.

Unfortunately, any veteran old enough to remember the early days of timesharing systems appreciates that there is no such thing as software that is invulnerable to hacking. It was true the first time a hacker gained unauthorized access to a timesharing system (and the data residing on that system); and it is still true today. Udi Manber's metaphorical view of the problem of spam filtering as an arms race also applies to the problem of defending both programs and data from unauthorized access and manipulation. As I read on the BBC NEWS Web site this morning, this point was driven home to Comcast with consequences that probably upset a lot of their customers. Comcast customers in Tucson, Arizona, were enjoying their cable feed of the Super Bowl broadcast by NBC-affiliate KVOA when they were disrupted by a typical act of prankish hacking as the program was interrupted by a video clip from some source other than KVOA:

The clip showed a woman unzipping a man's trousers, followed by a graphic act between the two.

"I just figured it was another commercial until I looked up," viewer Cora King told the Arizona Daily Star.

"Then he did his little dance with everything hanging out."

(It also says something about what we expect to see on television that this one viewer did not initially know she was being hacked.)

I report this only to reinforce one of my favorite themes. We tend to be so blown away by the evangelical promotions of new technologies, not to mention the business models that emerge around those technologies, that we willingly eschew any analytic thinking about the consequences entailed by either the technologies or the business models (or both). Furthermore, because not all undesirable consequences can be avoided with even the best analytic thinking, we need social institutions that can sustain those consequences when they arise. Traditionally, that aspect of the "public good" has been the responsibility of government, which is why it is so disconcerting that most technology evangelists have a view of government that is naive at best and Philistine at worst. Having just taken the World Economic Forum to task for their ongoing lack of any sense of reality, I take little comfort in a report that reveals that Comcast is in no better shape!

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