Monday, December 31, 2007

The TSA Is Curiously Akin To DRM

For the holidays, I booked three one-way tickets on three airlines that required negotiating five different airports. And everywhere I go, I see the operations of the TSA as a grand, tired farce on the American public. An op-ed in the Times sums it up pretty well (via BoingBoing):

The truth is, regardless of how many pointy tools and shampoo bottles we confiscate, there shall remain an unlimited number of ways to smuggle dangerous items onto a plane. The precise shape, form and substance of those items is irrelevant. We are not fighting materials, we are fighting the imagination and cleverness of the would-be saboteur.

And thus the TSA's most visual security efforts amount to little more than production value. Theater. Disrobing down to my socks into Rubbermaid bins before a flight is useless and dehumanizing, and makes me feel no more safe than before the almighty 9/11. As the article points out, the agency is a reactive beast, perpetually one step behind the latest plot, taking away pointy things and liquids and scanning shoes years after terrorist plots sought to exploit these means.

In this, there is a curious similarity between the TSA and the purveyors of DRM. The countless man-hours invested in both can be undone in moments, resulting in either a) a fiendish terrorist tragedy, or b) a duplicated DVD. In the case of the TSA, their porous security safeguarding can be broken through the unanticipated breach, rendering all reactive counter-measures for shoes and liquids useless. In the case of DRM, their millions of dollars in development can be defeated by one hacker in a few hours on a home computer.

The Transportation Security Administration and Digital Rights Management both seek to beat insurmountable odds by locking up impossibly porous systems. The trouble is, they can never solve the system for the 0.01% who actually want to break it, and instead present inherently flawed experiences for the other 99.9%. The antics of the TSA don't anticipate the dedicated terrorist, but do inconvenience millions who just want to travel from point a to point b. The efforts of DRM purveyors don't stop the avid hacker, but do inconvenience millions who just want to move their media from device a to device b.

The fundamental difference, of course, is that terrorists want to use public property for nefarious ends, while hackers want to use their private property (or licenses) for private entertainment. The TSA seeks to protect the public, while DRM seeks to restrict the public. Both achieve terrible results.

Solutions diverge as well. In principle, the TSA is a much-needed protective agency. It should, however, be the last line of defense before terrorists reach our transportation systems. Intelligence and immigration should police suspected parties instead of dragnetting the masses moments before boarding. DRM, meanwhile, is a principle of restricting fair use of copyrighted material. The notion is that profits can be maximized by restricting access to content. On the contrary, the free use of such material acts as promotion and creative fuel, encouraging properties far more monetizable than expensive locking mechanisms.

Only the overhaul of the underlying principles will effect any change in these flawed systems. In both cases, the systems are inhibiting the growth of the industries they seek to protect: because of them, I fly as little as possible and buy no media infected with DRM. In other words, the TSA is killing the airline industry. And DRM is killing music.

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