Permissions: A Horrible Solution to a Nasty Problem

If you’ve ever interacted with a computer, you’ve likely come across one of the most needlessly-bureaucratic, Kafkaesque, self-defeating inventions of the digital era: permissions. Permissions affect a range of things you use every day, from your e-mail (passwords) to your Wi-Fi router (network keys) to the username you use to log onto your computer. Put simply, permissions are a security that require you to identify yourself to a digital device, which in turn permits you to do things with that device.

Permissions are the worst invention since unsliced bread.

Like most inventions, they were devised to solve a problem. That problem consisted of the fact that technology allows us to do things. If other people do things with our technology, it is a security risk. So we mitigate that security risk by requiring passwords, random keys, confirmation codes, and all sorts of byzantine devices that are the digital equivalent of “show me your papers” – but worse.

They are worse because in Imperial Russia, you at least had one set of papers. In the digital world, there is no such thing. Just today, I’ve interacted with my Windows password, my Gmail password, a password to 2 or 3 myriad websites, my Wi-Fi password, and the serial key to my demo of Office 2013. It’s a complete and utter mess – a huge waste of time and mental resources, all to prove to technology that I bought and purchased that I am me.

But that’s not the half of it. The most obnoxious sort of permissions are those in which the computer never asks you for a password – instead, it refers to a secretive backend database and concludes that, based on what it already knows about you, it’s not going to do what you asked it do.

I’m referring to file permissions.

You don’t have to use computers long before you encounter a message straight out of The Trial – something along the lines of ‘you do not have permission to write to this location.’ What worse, at this point, your personal computer – which, to the best of your knowledge, has no higher authority than you, you who selected it, purchased it, and paid for it on Amazon.com – offers no assistance whatsoever. I can’t let you do that Dave.

Security is an issue with computing – no doubt about it. But permissions are not the solution. The idea of large databases of permissions and passwords as the only way to safely mitigate humanity’s interactions with technology is a lazy, inefficient, time-wasting idea that is far past its prime.

So this article is as much a rant as a plea: somebody please come up with something better.

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