Latest Twist On DRM Of Physical Products: Machines Locked Down By Geolocation

from the and-you-thought-you-owned-it dept

Despite overwhelming evidence that the public hates DRM, companies persist in coming up with new ways to impose it in an effort to control how their products are used. Here’s the latest twist, pointed out to us by @dozykraut:

On Practical Machinist, there’s a fascinating thread about the manufacturer’s lockdown on a high-priced, high-end Mori Seiki NV5000 A/40 CNC [computer numerical control] mill. The person who started the thread owns the machine outright, but has discovered that if he moves it at all, a GPS and gyro sensor package in the machine automatically shuts it down and will not allow it to restart until they receive a manufacturer’s unlock code.

As the Boing Boing article quoted above explains, this seems to be a requirement of the US government, and is designed to prevent machines being sent to Iran in violation of the embargo placed on that country. But of course, the ramifications are much wider:

now these machines can’t be moved at all without the manufacturer’s knowledge and consent, a situation that the manufacturers have turned into a business-opportunity by using the technology to assist in repossessing machines from delinquent lease-payers — and requiring permission for privilege of deciding where to place their key capital assets.

What’s particularly troubling is that the cost of adding GPS capabilities is already low, and will inevitably become lower. That raises the possibility of a wider range of devices being locked down by geolocation — and of their owners’ rights being eroded down even more.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or, and +glynmoody on Google+

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Comments on “Latest Twist On DRM Of Physical Products: Machines Locked Down By Geolocation”

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ChurchHatesTucker (profile) says:


As the Boing Boing article quoted above explains, this seems to be a requirement of the US government, and is designed to prevent machines being sent to Iran in violation of the embargo placed on that country.

I’d have thought GPS was precise enough to distinguish between “moving it across the shop” and “shipping it to Iran.”

JMT says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Wat

You’re right, but completely missing the point, which is that this method is stupid and unfairly punishes the purchaser. It would be simple, and far better for the manufacturer’s supposedly valuable customers, to have the machine freely movable within a set area, which could be a building, city or even country.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Wat

Because HomeLocation in your example can not be a single point, as it would result in too many false positives and therefore failures. It needs instead to be an area of a certain size and shape, possibly no more complex than a sphere or rectangle. Logically, it is a trivial matter to turn “if CurrentLocation within HomeLocationRadius then fail” into “if CurrentLocation within ProhibitedCountryRadius then fail”.

You’re making it out to be more difficult than it really is in an attempt to win an argument you’ve already lost.

Dave says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Wat

Not to mention that even if it were slightly more complicated to check if it were within a restricted country, it’s still no where near as complicated as putting in a whole infrastructure to shut down the device, provide the owner with all the call in information , staff and train company personal on how and why to reset the machine, verifying and certifying that your process meets government export and consumer protection regulations … A couple more lines of code versus staffing and training a department to handle the manual reset process?

Anyone worried that a couple lines of code is too complicated is suffering from ‘head up the ass’ syndrome.

Clownius says:

Re: Re: Re:6 Wat

You forgot that the current system allows them to add new countries/places to the list in future without needing to recall all the machines.

You never know some country might stop the NSA tapping their comms lines (or another terrible thing in the USAs eyes like piracy/privacy, both are bad m’kay) tomorrow and they will need to be controlled like Iran.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Wat

Yes and no. GPS is pretty error-prone. You can watch the GPS “drift” on stationary receivers as the EM environment around it changes. Installations that require high precision gain it by installing a GPS receiver nearby at a known, fixed location and using that to produce a correction factor for the other receivers.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Wat

The GPS and gyros are coordinated to make it more difficult to lie about where the machine is.

As soon as you move the machine, the gyroscope locks the machine down. You call the mill maker and they send you an unlock code. When you punch that in, the machine must be where you said it is or else it won’t unlock.

out_of_the_blue says:


Alarmed about rare industrial machines as if DON’T APPEAR TO KNOW YOUR FANCY NEW CARS HAVE THAT:

?We know everyone who breaks the law, we know when you?re doing it,? Farley said, according to a report in Business Insider. ?We have GPS in your car, so we know what you?re doing. By the way, we don?t supply that data to anyone.?

Ford on Thursday denounced those comments.

?Ford is absolutely committed to protecting our customers? privacy,? company spokesman Wes Sherwood said. ?We do not track our customers. No data is transmitted from the vehicle without the customer?s express consent.?

Customers give consent when they use a navigation or voice-activated system.



The phony deal that evil people (and gullible fools) try to force on us: You can’t have the benefits of technology unless give up all privacy.


Internet Zen Master (profile) says:


I can’t read Glyn’s mind so I can’t speak for him, but here’s some food for thought ootb:

The GPS in those cars is installed to primarily benefit the customer when they want to use things like, oh I don’t know, the navigation system? Something that people like to have in order to find their way around?

Yes, there is definitely a possibility it could be used for “everyday surveillance”, maybe even by your favorite scapegoat Google. However, it still requires customers to give consent for the systems to be used.

The ‘GPS and gyro sensor package’ in the CNC mill provides absolutely zero benefit to the customer, just like regular DRM. The only one who’s better off in this situation is the manufacturer.

Please stop and digest this before you start ranting again.

Just Sayin' says:


“The ‘GPS and gyro sensor package’ in the CNC mill provides absolutely zero benefit to the customer, just like regular DRM. The only one who’s better off in this situation is the manufacturer.”

There is actually plenty of benefit for the customer, just not what you might think.

CNC mills are very delicate, and in order to perform and produce parts to very high tolerances, the machines themselves must be properly installed and maintained. That means even a slight movement (say, dragging it across your shop to the other side) may be enough to cause problems – and thus produce poorer quality parts.

As a company, if you use the machine and think everything is in tolerance but it is not, the parts you produce may not work properly, may not fit, or in a worst case scenerio may fail in operation and cause injury or death to the end consumer of the parts made with the CNC machine.

It’s obviously to great benefit to the owner of a CNC machine to have it installed propertly and maintained properly, and it’s also of great benefit to the company making the CNC machines to be able to prove if the machine was properly installed by their technicians or not if a lawsuit comes down the pipe. There is a whole lot of benefit for everyone involved here.

Moreover, if you then decide to sell your machine shop to someone else, being sure that the equipment was properly installed would be a plus in the sale price.

Pushing it as “DRM” is crap, the whole “it moved to Iran” thing is only a sideline in the deal. Assuring that the machines work as intended, and that user of the machine does not inadvertently cause it to produce defective parts is key here, and very critical all the way to the consumer marketplace.

Pragmatic says:


All that being true (I’ll assume, for the sake of the argument), it should be possible to gently, carefully move the machine without GPS alerting the manufacturer. That’s plain creepy. Besides, when updating Adobe software or whatever, I have to input the code that proves I paid for it in order to get the upgrade. I can actually move my PC to any location I want and still be able to use the software I paid for. For now. Don’t give them ideas.

John Fenderson (profile) says:


That means even a slight movement (say, dragging it across your shop to the other side) may be enough to cause problems – and thus produce poorer quality parts.

Oh, please.

What would be a benefit to the customer might be a warning message that says that the machine detected movement that is out of spec, and it needs to be serviced.

Just locking it down is not a benefit for anybody but the manufacturer.

Internet Zen Master (profile) says:


Part of me thinks you might be blowing this out of proportion Glyn. I mean, why would anyone install Geolocation measures on physical products unless the products were like CNC mill, and being illegally exported to Iran.

Then the cynical side of me points out that if they can do it in something huge like a CNC mill, what’s stopping companies like Sony/Microsoft/Nintendo from eventually doing something similar when the next round of consoles comes out?
What if the video game industry decides they really want to enforce the whole “region-lock” thing? Got that new PS5/Xbox4.0 in a country where it’s not being released yet/won’t ever be released due to whatever stupid regulation?

Those gaming companies won’t even have to worry about you using their product where you’re not supposed to, even if you’re not hooked up to the net! They’ll just use the GPS and gyro sensor package they installed in the machine and turned the expensive console you bought with your own money into a big fat doorstop.

Yes, it’s hyperbolic, but that’s where I can see stuff like this headed, depending on how small they’re able to make the gyro sensor/GPS package.

Seriously, who the hell thought Physical DRM was ever a good idea anyway?

Rikuo (profile) says:

Re: Hm

Imagine taking your Nintendo 4DS (this new handheld console allows you to gather TimeCoins by walking around with the console on, just like the 3DS. You can spend these coins while gaming to see bonehead decisions and screwups you’re going to make in the future, therefore you now know how what not to do) from one country to another. You put in the game cart, but the GPS detects where you are and says for a “modest” fee, you can “activate” the cart for “turbocharged INTERNATIONAL!!!!ZOMG! gameplay!”

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Hm

Region lock!?!? What about when they shut you down because you took your XB0x to a friends house?
“Oh, you want to have an XBox party? Then you need to subscribe to our Party Package for a nominal fee!”

It’s already bad enough my DVR is useless when I lose the internet connection. Yes, I understand it’s to keep me from recording stuff and taking the box to a friends house. But when the cable is out I can’t even watch the shows I recorded for when the cable goes out :/

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

The law is an excuse, not actually a deterrent. There are better ways of determining if it’s in Iran than a GPS receiver planted inside of it.

It’s the same excuse that many other companies use making products that phone home when it comes to “Piracy”. This is clearly meant to be enforcement of EULAs across the board. Or to program planned obsolescence into their products (see: every console video game that used multiplayer that was released a decade earlier).

It’s really not surprising that larger machines have adopted this as well, especially considering that CNC machine costs as much as my car (which may also fail in the future once the manufacturer decides that I need to upgrade it).

Todd Knarr (profile) says:

There’s another reasonable reason to lock a machine like this: there’s some fairly delicate parts in these machines that can be easily damaged if the machine’s not moved properly or isn’t placed and leveled correctly. Most manufacturers already say “If you don’t have us assisting in moving it to make sure everything’s done right, we won’t do repairs on it and won’t support it from that point on until we’ve come in and done a complete prep-and-install on the machine to make sure everything’s right again. And it will be at your expense.”. It’s much the same reason companies I worked for put ShockWatch tags on expensive equipment we were shipping, to be able to tell when it arrived whether it’d been mishandled. Policy was that if it arrived with a ShockWatch tag showing red, we were to document everything including photos and make sure the damage claim form was filled out and signed by the driver before we accepted delivery. If they’d broken it in transit we wanted their insurance to be picking up the tab for replacing a hundred grand worth of tool, not us.

Rikuo (profile) says:

Re: Re:

What part of “Don’t move it unless we’re there to assist you” actually requires this type of geo-location DRM? If the machine didn’t have it, and the purchaser moved it and broke something delicate, then as you say, he’d still be on the hook for paying repair costs, since there wouldn’t be a record of the manufacturer having sent it’s employees out to assist.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

The gyro is there to detect movement when the GPS fails, like due to being in a factory and surrounded by metal. Being as it give a point position, it is useless for levelling. To level a machine like that you need to measure by some means the beds relationship to a plane, which is usually done by making sure that it is level in length, and at 90 degrees at both ends of the length.

Todd Knarr (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Because companies would move the equipment, damage it in the process, then try and claim they hadn’t done anything (how many times have we heard that from users?), move the machine back to where it was originally if need be and try and get the manufacturer to cover the repairs. So rig the equipment so there’s no problem if it’s left alone, but if it’s moved significantly it locks itself. If the owner’s followed the service contract they’ll never have this happen because they’ll have you there during the move and you’ll unlock the machine as part of checking that it’s installed properly in the new location. And if you get a service call for a “faulty” machine and it turns out it’s been locked because it was moved, the owner can’t try and make you foot the bill for damage they caused. Most of these machines that I’ve dealt with can have the lockdown disabled, and the manufacturer will do exactly that for you if you’re not renewing the service contract (although they’ll also usually require you to sign a statement that you understand the equipment will not be covered by a warranty or service agreement after this point and if it needs repairs it’ll all be on your dime).

I was taught to do something similar on cars. I’d chalk-mark parts before work was done, so I could tell afterwards if they’d moved stuff they shouldn’t’ve or failed to move stuff they ought to have. Worst case was catching a dealer trying to tell me they’d put a completely new transmission in (manufacturer recall, the transmission was to be completely pulled and replaced, housing and all), but there on the “new” transmission were the exact chalk marks I’d put on the old one marking the alignment with the engine and the drive shaft.

Applesauce says:

These don't use GPS

They use a gyro and motion sensor kit. Think “tilt switch”. It is not sophisticated enough to tell if you’ve moved the machine a mere six feet or all the way to Iran.
Still, companies are taking advantage of the Federal rules to squeeze their customers. Just as the commercial airlines have used TSA regs to make it impossible for you to resell your airline tickets as I remember doing many years ago.

MikeC (profile) says:

GPS inside a factory??

How are they getting GPS to work in a lot of locations? Many many industrial locations have so much interference or physical blockage that GPS won’t work. How do they account for that. I can take you a brass extrusion company where the ovens, smelters and electronic interference make cell phones useless in the parking lot. Good luck with GPS.

This sounds bad and it really is, But as was said, I am much more worried about what happens if they go out of business. Since I’ve worked on CNC’s that are 20-30 years old w/control systems that are from companies that don’t exist anymore. Old software, mod’s, on and on and on with possible problems.

Andrew Norton (profile) says:

I used to machine (many years ago I was a robotics guy ,was even one of the tech advisers/safety inspectors on BattleBots), and I’ll tell you one thing about modern machining. The low-end stuff today, is worse than the low-end stuff from the 40s.

Second, 90% of all mills and lathes come from China.

Third – there are a NUMBER of conversion kits, to turn regular mills and lathes into CNC machines, and has been for a long time. I remember the battleBot builder association SORC buying and installing a conversion kit in 1999.

Fourth -mills and lathes and CNC machines are not that complex. In fact they’re a lot simpler than atomic weapons to construct. So, if you’re worried about constructing a bomb, and don’t want them to do it, trying to den them a much simpler tool used for it, aint going to work. Especially not when there are even open source kits out there. After all, how well did the Ban on CNC machines hamper the Manhattan project? (I know the ban was temporal, in that they hadn’t been invented at that point, but the US made them without needing a CNC)

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: geolocation locks are already out there

Is it CDMA or UMTS (3G)? If it is, it can’t operate at all without a GPS lock. The CDMA protocol (also used in a modified form by UMTS) NEEDS a precise time reference to work correctly. This precise time reference usually comes from the GPS. Without it, there would be lots of interference.

raindog469 (profile) says:

Not the first device to do this

Living in a rural-suburban area, we have wireless phone service issues inside our house, so bad that our carrier has provided us with two femtocells (devices that plug into your broadband connection and act as a tiny cell tower, routing your calls over IP). Both of them have had a GPS antenna on a long wire that you have to stick in a window so it can geolocate you. Until it does, there’s a red light flashing on the front of the unit and it’s essentially a brick.

Someone at Sprint told me when I first got it that it’s due to export regulations, and I know I’ve heard of satphone users getting in trouble in countries whose governments are also monopoly phone companies. Maybe it’s that, maybe they need location data on every phone to share with the mighty US government. Who knows? Either way it’s annoying as hell.

raindog469 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Not the first device to do this

We did get our femtocells for free. But look on Amazon: the only Sprint-compatible femtocell is exactly the same unit as Sprint provides for free, with the same mandatory GPS antenna.

Perhaps you were thinking of repeaters, which require no GPS antenna but wouldn’t help us as much since the coverage in our neighborhood is terrible in general, even for the two big guys.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Not the first device to do this

There are several good reasons to lock a femtocell to a fixed location.

First, Sprint has a license to the frequency used by the femtocell which is restricted to a geographic area. This is not like wifi, which is unlicensed. Within that geographic area, only Sprint is supposed to use that frequency; outside it, the frequency can be reserved to someone else.

Second, for operational reasons even within the geographic area they have to know the precise location of every femtocell. On a cellular system, all cells are sized and have frequencies chosen to avoid inter-cell interference and to allow for a specified level of service. This also applies to femtocells: if they are put somewhere unexpected, they can mess with the careful planning.

Third, they have to be able to locate (and remotely disable) the femtocell in case it’s misbehaving and causing interference.

A femtocell is just an extension of the operator’s wireless infrastructure. It’s part of the operator’s cellular network.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Better start a hacker lab where you live in your neighboorhood and start hacking life.

I used my DIY scanning electron microscope to view a 555 timer circuit while it was powered.

BenKrasnow: Viewing an active electronic circuit with a scanning electron microscope

BenKrasnow: DIY Custom LCD

MIT: Paper Speakers.

I love being a hacker yay!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

In today’s age, there’s little excuse for not at least having a basic idea of how to build your own stuff, instead of being dependent on a third party that can at any time become an adversary.

Where do start the process of building your own stuff, prospecting for the raw materials, working from refined materials, or using pre-built parts. If you really want to be independent of third parties, start investigating stone age technology, as that is about all that a single person or small group can mange without dependencies of external manufacturers.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Yep start there and evolve, some will go farther than you think or scratch some itch, learn about something that you are curious and try to do it yourself and start learning from there.

Do you want to learn how to build a high quality ribbon microphone?

Is simple, just a pair of magnets and a thin metallic ribbon, also they can work as loud speakers.

I know that some here will be very interested in that since they are involved in audio production.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward says:

Line of Sight

Um, GPS needs line of sight to work. I often have to take portable GPS devices outside to get them to acquire, or put them to the window, and then it may depend on how many satellites are in that direction.

If the mill is located outside, GPS would not be a problem, unless they were in the bottom of a canyon. Do they often locate CNC mills outdoors? Indoors, no one will have any idea where the device is, via GPS.

It is far more likely that the device requires Internet access and the locating is done by IP address.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Line of Sight

GPS needs line of sight to work

Sortof. GPS needs to be able to see the signals from at least three GPS satellites. Completely unobstructed view to the satellites is not necessary — I can get a GPS lock inside the office building I work at, even though I’m nowhere near a window. However, GPS signals are also very, very weak and are easily obstructed. Some buildings (like yours) will obstruct the signals, while others (like mine) will not, regardless of direct line of sight. It all depends.

Annonimus says:

And 3d printing is on the rise

As they try to add more and more control and leases to their products the legacy machine manufacturing industry will fuel its own downfall by making room in the market for machines that are produced by assembling illegal 3d prints (lets face it: they will try to get 3d prints for making machines banned for the same reason the copyright lobby is trying to legally control what the copy function on a computer can be used for) without any GPS components and without any intentional security holes for the government to use.

Buckle in people, a new front is opening up.

Mega1987 (profile) says:

well. well. well....

Looks like those company are expanding some of their departments…..

by making their databases to handle at least more than a million records,if not billions, a year plus the cost of maintaining and updating such database….

I mean add gps system to a device? cars, I can understand that as well as other TRANSPORTATION SYSTEMS as they need those so they won’t get lost during their travel/journey… especially in airplanes and ships.

but on other computer device other than a handheld device on the purpose of tracking the device, other than using the map/weather app in any mobile device, to put an AUTO SHUT OFF system if it goes out of bound and must wait for the company to send it’s reactivation code to use it again from a different location?

add more cost to the product to justify it?

oh well… more reasons for Jailbreakers to kick up their technical skills to counter such lockdown…

Anonymous Coward says:

We’ve already fallout over the NSA and people deciding they don’t need US products because they might be spied on. So how long till these companies making this type of CNC mill find out they don’t have a market either? At this rate the US government is going to look around one day and find despite all these trade treaties that no one is buying from them.

Boy that’ll really fix the economy won’t it?

Anonymous Coward says:

Wait for the monetization of this concept....

Your machine comes with a 5 mile “home location” any movement outside of your licensed 5 mile radius will result in your machine shutting down and becoming inoperable.

Don’t worry, once you move your machine back within your home location radius, you can re-activate your machine for only $1000. (US cash only, no checks please).

If you would like to purchase a 100 mile radius license, the option is available for only $10,000, 1000 mile radius license available for only $100,000, 10,000 mile radius license for only $1,000,000 (you get the picture, call us and we will sell you the license you need at an appropriately gouging price).

Trademark/Copyright/Patent Pending… all your license are belonging to me…. muahahahaha

Ben C. Benson (user link) says:

Just rip out teh Jap-Junk controls and install LinuxCNC controller, and compatible servos and servo amps. Problem fixed. Of course, you could just get a used machine and do that from the get go anyway. There are plenty of Brother Tapping Centers out there that can be had cheap. There’s a thread on cnc arena about a TC-225 refit – neat stuff. Anyway, this is nothing new, really. The Japanese have always been very shady about building non standard and obfuscated controls and not supporting anything. They’re reply is always “just buy new machine”.

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