Resilience over rigidity: how to solve tomorrow's computer problems today

My new Locus Magazine column, Wicked Problems: Resilience Through Sensing, proposes a solution the urgent problem we have today of people doing bad stuff with computers. Where once "bad stuff with computers" meant "hacking your server," now it could potentially mean "blocking air-traffic control transmissions" or "programming your self-driving car to kill you."

The traditional regulatory model for solving this kind of problem — making it technologically difficult to accomplish this badness — is dead today. Totally inapplicable to computer-driven devices.

But that doesn't mean all bets are off: where before we looked for rigid defenses, today's problems demand resilient ones.

Here's where their reasoning took them: When the FCC's stupid plan to sign all the code died, there would still be a problem with devices emitting RF that clobbered the devices you wanted to use. Programmers would make simple errors that would cascade into terrible radio interference, Users would do dumb, unanticipated things with the configurations of their devices. Nearby vacuum cleaners and microwave ovens would take hard knocks that dislodged their shielding and turned them into inaudibly high-pitched radio klaxons. Bad guys – malware authors, griefers, pranksters, and criminals – would deliberately reconfigure devices (theirs and yours, if they could get at them) to do bad radio stuff.

This means that, no matter what, we'll all need some way to sense and triangulate upon bad radio emitters. The good news is, once we're all carrying around lots of flexible, cheap SDRs, we'll be able to do that sensing and triangulation – and the more SDRs we have, the more we'll need them to sense the broken devices in their vicinity as part of normal troubleshooting. If my radios and your radios and Fred's radios all agree that there's Something Bad happening Over There, they can raise a flag for humans to deal with. They can tell their owners, or upload a log-entry to a public ledger of hotspots, or take some other step that will allow humans to intervene. Maybe that takes the form of you filling in a bug report with the FCC's radio cops; maybe it means you look over in a corner of your kitchen to figure out why your microwave is messing up your house's network.

This is a great answer, because it treats humans as sensors, not things to be sensed. It distributes intelligence and agency to the edges of the network. It is resilient and flexible, and responds well to intentional and accidental malfunctions.

Wicked Problems: Resilience Through Sensing [Locus Magazine]