Digital rights activist Cory Doctorow painted a frightening picture of the dangers posed by our inability to control the devices that dominate our day-to-day lives during an Oct. 13 Ford Hall Forum discussion of "The Remote-Controlled Society," cosponsored with the Boston Literary District.

Referring to smartphones as “the distraction rectangle in your pocket,” he said: “It knows who your friends are, where you go with them … the emails you send to your lawyers. The insulin implant in your body is wireless, and someone could access it from a few yards away and kill you.”

Doctorow noted that the computers regulating HVAC systems and seismic-correction devices in buildings can be manipulated by hackers, as can passenger vehicles.

"Original sin of the Internet"

He said that the threat is compounded by “a uniquely bad computer law”–the Digital Millennial Copyright Act of 1998, which he called “one of the original sins of the Internet.”

The law includes a clause outlawing the removal of digital locks that restrict the use of devices from DVDs to medical implants. It imposes a $500,000 fine and five-year prison term for a first offense.

These digital locks were created to protect the “information economy,” and their effect was to subdivide products so that consumers could be charged more than once for their use. So, for example, the DVD a consumer watches on one device can’t be downloaded or shared to a phone.

“If I want that movie on my phone, I have to buy it from an online store,” said Doctorow, who objects to the idea of forcing consumers to buy the same digital product twice.

But he argues that the larger problem arises because digital pirates can easily crack some of the encryption codes in computers running our homes, cars, and even medical devices in our bodies, and being denied access to the security codes they contain is dangerous.

Notorious vehicle hacks

Doctorow discussed “Dieselgate,” the Volkswagen emissions-cheating debacle, and pointed to Chrysler’s recall of 1.4 million Jeeps this past summer after computer security researchers demonstrated that they could control the vehicle’s radio, windshield wipers, and speed using a laptop miles away from where the Jeep was being driven.

“There are a million subprime cars on the road,” he said, with computer networks on board that can be activated if a payment is late, in which case the car “shouts at you.” Delay the payment too long and the car won’t start. The inherent perils were demonstrated when a Texas man disabled hundreds of vehicles or set their horns to honking by hacking into this sort of system after he was laid off by a car dealership.

Legal remedies

Suffolk Law Professor Rebecca Curtin said that the law can be employed to improve transparency on digital security and privacy issues. She noted that Sen. Ed Markey responded to the Jeep recall by filing a bill setting standards that automakers must meet in terms of security and privacy.

Sawyer Business School Professor Benjamin Ngugi, noted that “if there were an issue with food, the FDA would step in” and said that “the original intent of digital rights management was not working at all.”

Boston University computer science Professor Leonid Reyzin said that transparency is a beginning, but not enough in the face of program obfuscation, a means by which code can be made unintelligible. Volkswagen used the approach to make its diesel engines perform differently during inspections, he said.

“We ought to fight very hard for legal control…but retaining technical control presents its own challenges that can’t be fully understood,” he said.

The Ford Hall Forum at Suffolk University–the nation’s oldest free public lecture series–will continue its fall 2015 series of discussions with “Too Liberal for Religion” from 6:30-8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 22, in the University’s Sargent Hall, Main Function Room, 120 Tremont St., Boston.