Drones will be an inflection point in the "war on general purpose computing"

Dec 20, 2018

Today’s drone mischief at Gatwick Airport represents a unique problem. I’m going to argue that the question of how bad actors can be prevented from causing trouble with drones poses an existential threat to open code.

So what we know right now (and as I write, it is a developing story) is that person or persons unknown have used what appears to be a sophisticated swarm of drones to essentially execute a denial of service attack against Gatwick Airport. Police have been unable to disable them with conventional weapons, and the Army has been called in. Reactions among politicians have been predictable: Calls to license drone sales, increase fines for improper usage, and so on.

But this will have no effect on misuse. The components to build a drone are easily available on import. Okay, so ban their import. I can buy a drone with inbuilt restrictions (locking to prevent flight near airports, and so on) and replace its innards with my own microcontroller. I can download the software I need easily and freely on Github.

This is where things become problematic. No-one is going to advocate the licensing of microcontrollers, surely. Or perhaps they will? That scenario is distinctly more dystopian than the one that I’m imagining, and I don’t believe it will happen because it will have too many opponents.

No, what I think will happen is that a government somewhere will eventually move to ban the production and transmission of drone software, in the same way that we have previously regulated cryptographic algorithms. We have the infrastructure in place. Systems built to track and ban both illegal and adult content have been rolled out. So why not just draft a law which makes it a crime to share drone software?

If that’s a realistic possibility, then I think it will represent further steps in what has been called “the war on general purpose computing”, a set of trends which have locked down hardware, made it difficult to repurpose existing hardware, and move people away from general computing devices towards subject-matter-specific ones, like a smart TV instead of a computer hitched to the television.

Once government has a taste for regulating software in this way, I think we’ll see more of it. So that’s why I think that today’s events mark a possible inflection point. We have reached a situation where general purpose computing may no longer be compatible with the security of nation-states.