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White Hat Hackers Would Have Their Devices Destroyed Under the TPP

It could leave the internet of things fundamentally insecure.
Image: Flickr/Matthew Hurst

Car hackers, farmers fixing their high-tech tractors, and teenage DVD rippers; all over the world, these digital tinkerers could have their devices seized and destroyed by the authorities thanks to provisions in the newly-minted Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.

The finalized copyright chapter of the TPP, leaked on Friday by Wikileaks, reveals that under the agreement, "judicial authorities shall, at least, have the authority to […] order the destruction of devices and products found to be involved in" any activity that circumvents controls that manufacturers build into their software or devices, known as Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology.


"As a result," Jeremy Malcolm, senior global policy analyst for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, wrote me in an email, "those who are tinkering with their own legally-purchased digital products will be at risk not only of financial penalties, but also having their equipment seized and perhaps destroyed."

This means that if you use your laptop to rip a DVD movie, your computer could be seized or even destroyed by authorities, Vivek Krishnamurthy, a cyberlaw instructor at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, told me over the phone. Even more importantly, he said, security researchers—experts who hack cars and other consumer goods to make sure hardware and software is secure—could be prevented from doing their jobs.

"The TPP is going to prohibit people from checking these devices to see if they work as advertised"

Because of this, the "internet of things," a theoretical future where every device is networked via the internet, could be left in a state of chronic device ecosystem insecurity, Krishnamurthy said.

"What we're seeing now is that every country in the TPP is going to, in the first instance, prohibit people from checking these devices to see if they work as advertised: if they're safe, if they're effective, etcetera," Krishnamurthy told me. "They're going to go have to get permission from someone to do that research."

The TPP would force Canada to change its laws to allow for civil courts to seize and destroy devices, Krishnamurthy said. In Canada, the authorities may seize devices involved in infringing copyright when a criminal charge is involved, but no such clause exists for civil proceedings.

The leaked chapter states that TPP countries may include some exceptions to this rule for hacking and tinkering that circumvents DRM, but doesn't violate copyright law. These exceptions aren't mandatory, but the prescribed punishment—taking and destroying your devices—is.

The device-destroying provision appeared in a TPP chapter draft that was leaked in 2014 by Wikileaks. In that draft, the Chilean negotiators attempted to soften the provision with language like, "at their discretion." However, none of their proposals appear in the final draft—just the firm edict, and a full carve-out for Chile in the form of an option to abide by a previous agreement with the US instead.

It's important to note that although the TPP is finalized, it has not yet been ratified by the governments of the countries that signed it. It's possible that governments could still push back, but unless that happens, the world will have laws that say authorities can break tinkerers' shit.