September 18, 2020

Technology: Unknown or Unknowable?

I’ve been reading what various Washington people are saying about the Berman-Coble peer-to-peer hacking bill. Many people agree that if the bill is passed, a sort of arms race will develop between the p2p-disrupters and the p2p-developers. The disrupters will deploy a new technology to foil p2p networks; the developers will cook up a countermeasure; and the cycle will continue. The likely course of this arms race is one question that people want to consider in evaluating the effects of the Berman-Coble bill.

This is a nontrivial technical question, and most Washington folks – on both sides of the Berman-Coble issue – say that they don’t know the answer. There’s nothing wrong with that. We can’t expect people to have close at hand the answers to complex questions outside their expertise, and if you don’t know the answer to a question, it’s better to say, “I don’t know” than to pretend that you do know. So I don’t mind when people treat the answer as unknown.

What does bother me is when they treat it as unknowable, as if there were nothing anyone could do to get the answer.

The fact is that there are people who analyze situations like this for a living. Other computer security arms races, like the one between virus authors and antivirus companies, are well characterized. We know pretty precisely what the antivirus folks can and cannot expect to achieve. Nobody has a perfect crystal ball, but there is a lot we can say technically about how the Hollywood vs. p2p arms race will come out. Yet some people in Washington don’t seem too interested in finding out.