It’s a feudal world out there.
Some of us have pledged our allegiance to Google: We have Gmail accounts, we use Google Calendar and Google Docs, and we have Android phones. Others have pledged allegiance to Apple: We have Macintosh laptops, iPhones, and iPads; and we let iCloud automatically synchronize and back up everything. Still others of us let Microsoft do it all. Or we buy our music and e-books from Amazon, which keeps records of what we own and allows downloading to a Kindle, computer, or phone. Some of us have pretty much abandoned e-mail altogether … for Facebook.
These vendors are becoming our feudal lords, and we are becoming their vassals. We might refuse to pledge allegiance to all of them — or to a particular one we don’t like. Or we can spread our allegiance around. But either way, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to not pledge allegiance to at least one of them.
Feudalism provides security. Classical medieval feudalism depended on overlapping, complex, hierarchical relationships. There were oaths and obligations: a series of rights and privileges. A critical aspect of this system was protection: vassals would pledge their allegiance to a lord, and in return, that lord would protect them from harm.
Of course, I’m romanticizing here; European history was never this simple, and the description is based on stories of that time, but that’s the general model.
And it’s this model that’s starting to permeate computer security today.
I Pledge Allegiance to the United States of Convenience
Traditional computer security centered around users. Users had to purchase and install anti-virus software and firewalls, ensure their operating system and network were configured properly, update their software, and generally manage their own security.
This model is breaking, largely due to two developments:
- New Internet-enabled devices where the vendor maintains more control over the hardware and software than we do — like the iPhone and Kindle; and
- Services where the host maintains our data for us — like Flickr and Hotmail.
Now, we users must trust the security of these hardware manufacturers, software vendors, and cloud providers.
We choose to do it because of the convenience, redundancy, automation, and shareability. We like it when we can access our e-mail anywhere, from any computer. We like it when we can restore our contact lists after we’ve lost our phones. We want our calendar entries to automatically appear on all of our devices. These cloud storage sites do a better job of backing up our photos and files than we would manage by ourselves; Apple does a great job keeping malware out of its iPhone apps store.
In this new world of computing, we give up a certain amount of control, and in exchange we trust that our lords will both treat us well and protect us from harm. Not only will our software be continually updated with the newest and coolest functionality, but we trust it will happen without our being overtaxed by fees and required upgrades. We trust that our data and devices won’t be exposed to hackers, criminals, and malware. We trust that governments won’t be allowed to illegally spy on us.
Trust is our only option. In this system, we have no control over the security provided by our feudal lords. We don’t know what sort of security methods they’re using, or how they’re configured. We mostly can’t install our own security products on iPhones or Android phones; we certainly can’t install them on Facebook, Gmail, or Twitter. Sometimes we have control over whether or not to accept the automatically flagged updates — iPhone, for example — but we rarely know what they’re about or whether they’ll break anything else. (On the Kindle, we don’t even have that freedom.)
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
I’m not saying that feudal security is all bad. For the average user, giving up control is largely a good thing. These software vendors and cloud providers do a lot better job of security than the average computer user would. Automatic cloud backup saves a lot of data; automatic updates prevent a lot of malware. The network security at any of these providers is better than that of most home users.
Feudalism is good for the individual, for small startups, and for medium-sized businesses that can’t afford to hire their own in-house or specialized expertise. Being a vassal has its advantages, after all.
For large organizations, however, it’s more of a mixed bag. These organizations are used to trusting other companies with critical corporate functions: They’ve been outsourcing their payroll, tax preparation, and legal services for decades. But IT regulations often require audits. Our lords don’t allow vassals to audit them, even if those vassals are themselves large and powerful.
Yet feudal security isn’t without its risks.
Our lords can make mistakes with security, as recently happened with Apple, Facebook, and Photobucket. They can act arbitrarily and capriciously, as Amazon did when it cut off a Kindle user for living in the wrong country. They tether us like serfs; just try to take data from one digital lord to another.
Ultimately, they will always act in their own self-interest, as companies do when they mine our data in order to sell more advertising and make more money. These companies own us, so they can sell us off — again, like serfs — to rival lords…or turn us in to the authorities.
Historically, early feudal arrangements were ad hoc, and the more powerful party would often simply renege on his part of the bargain. Eventually, the arrangements were formalized and standardized: both parties had rights and privileges (things they could do) as well as protections (things they couldn’t do to each other).
Today’s internet feudalism, however, is ad hoc and one-sided. We give companies our data and trust them with our security, but we receive very few assurances of protection in return, and those companies have very few restrictions on what they can do.
This needs to change. There should be limitations on what cloud vendors can do with our data; rights, like the requirement that they delete our data when we want them to; and liabilities when vendors mishandle our data.
Like everything else in security, it’s a trade-off. We need to balance that trade-off. In Europe, it was the rise of the centralized state and the rule of law that undermined the ad hoc feudal system; it provided more security and stability for both lords and vassals. But these days, government has largely abdicated its role in cyberspace, and the result is a return to the feudal relationships of yore.
Perhaps instead of hoping that our Internet-era lords will be sufficiently clever and benevolent — or putting our faith in the Robin Hoods who block phone surveillance and circumvent DRM systems — it’s time we step in in our role as governments (both national and international) to create the regulatory environments that protect us vassals (and the lords as well). Otherwise, we really are just serfs.
A version of this essay was originally published on Wired.com.