Futurist Prediction – The CPU Registry – And You Thought the Long Gun Registry Was Bad…

Me and my junior editor, Kleopatra
Me and my junior editor, Kleopatra

If you think the Long-Gun Registry was a debacle, think again. Wait till you see the CPU Registry.

Back in September of 2010 I wrote an article titled Technical Protection Measures – When They Work And When They Are A Disaster. It covered why Technical Protection Measures aka Digital Rights Management aka Digital Restrictions Management do not work, and have never worked.

The article upset quite a few people, including curiously several companies that do not currently use DRM, and in fact saw their sales rise dramatically after they stopped using it. Yes, we are talking about the Big Four Record Labels. Their employees often post comments in the Balanced Copyright Facebook Group (which has open membership – anyone is welcome to join).

One of the points that I made in my TPM/DRM article is that General Purpose computers, like my MacBook Pro, or any computer running Microsoft Windows, are designed to copy. That is their primary purpose. Any attempt to stop them from copying is going to have limited success.

In fact to stop a computer from copying, you have to make it no longer a computer.

Let’s Consider the iDevices

Are the iDevices (iPod, iPad, iPhone) computers? Yes they are. They are really good at copying. Apple has built some limitations into them, but these can be worked around by a judicious use of that all around Grandma hacker tool called email. Yep, email the file, change the name, and email it back. You now have a copy…

The iDevices have a sandbox for each application, in which the files are kept. It is possible to move files from application to application in a variety of ways, but in most cases you don’t need to.

Copying as illustrated above is simple and easy. Just change the file name while emailing it.

The same works with Android phones/tablets.

Specialty Computers

Automobile Engine Control Units use a general purpose computer central processing unit, some memory, a mother board, and a few other pieces.

The ECU is locked down. There are legal reasons why the ECU has to be locked down (any change in the ECU will change the vehicle emissions, making the vehicle no longer emissions compliant). An ECU is a single purpose computer with locked in programming. It is extremely limited in what it can do, and can have severe problems if it finds itself in a situation it wasn’t programmed to handle (for example if a car.

Take Mexico City for example. It varies between 7,940 and 12,894 feet above sea level. If your ECU isn’t programmed to handle the lower oxygen content of the air at that elevation your car won’t work properly. Early computerized engines had problems with high elevations. Current cars work seamlessly at those elevations.

The CPU in a Microwave Oven is also limited in what it can do. It has limited inputs and outputs. The same is true of the computer in your DVD and Blu-Ray players.


The limitations aren’t actually in the Central Processing Unit itself. Every CPU manufactured is based on a Binary number system. Binary math is very simple. There are two positions that a switch can be in, on or off.

Because the basic CPU chip is so simple, locking it down is impossible. On. Off. There’s only two possible things that can happen. On. Off.

A TPM/DRM system needs to be complex. It has to make decisions on what is and isn’t an allowable action, and it needs to make those decisions thousands of times per second. A general purpose computer needs make none of those decisions, it just needs to check whether a bit is on or of, and it can do that Billions of times per second.

That’s why DRM/TPM schemes fail. Simplicity beats complexity every time. Simplicity is also faster than complexity.

But You Mentioned a Registry?

Futurist hat on. Think about it. Any CPU, and I mean any CPU, out of your cell phone, your microwave oven, out of your DVD player, out of your video game machine, out of your digital camera, out of your camcorder, out of your automobile engine, out of your in dash entertainment center, out of your active electric guitar, out of your dumb phone, out of your smart phone, out of your digital alarm clock, out of your television set, out of your electric piano/organ, out of your bread maker, out of your television set top box, out of your sewing machine, out of your lawn mower, out of your powered wheelchair/scooter, out of your GPS Device, etc. all work the same way.

So, assume that some government decides to pass a law making the sale of “General Purpose Computers” illegal like they did in the Soviet Union. OK, they’ve passed this law. Now they have a huge problem, because all of these people who want General Purpose Computers start “kit bashing” to build their own, using the CPU units out of all of those  machines that have general purpose CPUs designed into them.

At which point some Brainiac realizes that they need a CPU registry. Just think. All of those items rolling off the assembly lines for the last thirty years with General Purpose Central Processing Units. Many automobiles have fifty of them!

So the only way to keep those CPUs out of the hands to kit bashers who would otherwise use them to build General Purpose Computers would be to register every CPU sold into the market, track it from original sale to a consumer, to the point where it is scrapped.

We are talking the biggest, most invasive, horribly messy out of control bureaucracy that you could ever imagine. It would make the Soviet Union look like an example of moral probity.

At This Point You Think I’m Joking

Unfortunately I’m not. This is the sad thing about being a futurist. There are times when you pray that you aren’t going to be right. I’m praying that I’m not going to be right, but things have already moved too far in the direction that I talked about back in September 2010.

Logic at this point says that I warn you. I hope that I’m wrong. I hope that I end up sounding like Chicken Little. The problem is that they way things are looking with SOPA and  PIPA (there’s good coverage of both on Techdirt), I’m afraid that I’m not being alarmist enough.


Wayne Borean

Monday January 2, 2012


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