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Originally published on OLPCNews.

Wayan has been rightly concerned about grey market leakage of XOs from countries to the US, due to the high demand for One Laptop Per Child computers. Another ongoing concern has been in-country theft, misuse, and redirection of the laptops to users other than the intended children.

OLPC XO is unique for now

The first problem has been mitigated by the G1G1 sales in the US, and the theft problem is solved by both the bitfrost security platform and the distinctly green-colored and unique design of the laptop. Reason goes that if you see an OLPC-looking laptop being used by anyone who's not a child, it's been stolen or otherwise coerced from its rightful owner.

Unfortunately, the G1G1 solution plugging the developing world to first world leak has opened up a new leak. With this, it is possible for someone in a country where the children have XOs to legitimately buy a G1G1 laptop through a friend or organization in the US. In fact, many schools and non-governmental organizations worldwide may find US-based organizations to buy a small number of G1G1 XOs to use if their country is unwilling or unable to afford a mass XO purchase; it is unrealistic to think that the G1G1 laptops will stay only in the US.

This causes what turns out to be a non-insignificant problem. The social solution to theft was to eliminate the resale market value by distinctive branding - the only valid way to get a bright green OLPC XO was to be a student. Negroponte mentions this often in his speeches, and a 2005 Technology Review interview with him illustrates this "post-office truck" anti-theft method:JP: How can you reasonably believe that these very valuable devices -- worth more [than] two working people's annual salaries in poor nations -- will not be stolen and resold?

NN: Having them stolen may become our distribution model, for all I know! Seriously. Usually people steal because there is a secondary market. There is not much of a secondary market for post-office trucks, so not too many are stolen. Also, imagine a UN blue rubber laptop, with the crest in it. How many of those will be stolen? I know, some will be, and people may even try to take them to a body shop to be transformed. (Technology Review, 2005)Unfortunately, with valid ways to get an OLPC XO through G1G1, this loses its bite, as Mike C. Fletcher points out in this week's OLPC security email list:Originally (to my knowledge), the plan was that some corporate partner would be contracting with Quanta to produce a custom run of the laptops, with some physical differentiation, such as a change of colour, so that the two "products" (the educational and the purchased) would be visibly different, possession of one type would be a badge of honour (those who help support), while the other would be a badge of shame (those who have supported the grey market and theft of children's laptops). That approach apparently was not feasible, so we wound up with a situation where our own program may be opening up a grey market.The thread wanders into the classic gray market problems of children or their families selling their laptops for food, corruption in the laptop distribution chain, and outright theft with intent to resell that have haunted the XO since its inception.

Ivan Krstić's bitfrost does a laudable job at reducing these threats; given some important prerequisites of a national network (or well-maintained sneakernet with school mesh networks and a server) with a low level of corruption among the people managing it. The laptops must go through an extensive activation process during their first usage and then check in every two weeks (a value the country can alter), shutting off if they have been reported as stolen.

Another XO laptop shame

This is missing the point that Mike Fletcher is trying to make; if all the OLPC laptops look the same, regardless of if they were bought legitimately through the G1G1 program, received as part of a software project, or implemented by the country and given to the schoolchildren, then the social disincentive -- the badge of shame -- against theft is gone.

There are always social ways around the technical barriers that bitfrost puts into place, as Mike Fletcher reminds the thread:Similarly if armed men are telling you to hand over the shipment of laptops and all of the activation keys, and tell you they will come back and kill you all if you ever report them stolen, you will likely hand over the shipment and keep quiet. As long as the profit motive exists, you will have people try to exploit the resource. [...]

What we are suggesting here is a means to reduce the *motive* to steal the laptops. While first-boot activation erects another hurdle (and we want that hurdle), we have potentially millions of dollars available for determined thieves. Having a physical difference in the laptop introduces a per-unit cost to grey-marketers, each laptop now has to be physically altered with a reasonable degree of care to avoid being easily spotted.However, the physical alteration of the G1G1 laptops is not up for discussion. The list toyed with the idea of just a modified XO logo on the back, but it appears to be too late for even that; which would've been a difficult way to distinguish legitimate G1G1 laptops from stolen ones anyhow.

The more subtle the design differences are from G1G1 laptops and OLPC XOs as sold to countries, the less protection against theft there is. Using the design and coloration as a theft deterrent was thin ice to begin with; and requiring people to remember different color codes for the XO logo before branding someone as a thief more so.

So, a question to the OLPC News readership - is there a way to maintain the "mail truck" social immunity from theft by eliminating the secondary markets through distinctive branding of the OLPC XOs, and also allow identically-branded G1G1 systems to be sold?

It enables the argument of someone in a country implementing the XOs to claim that their XO was legitimately purchased; removing the stigma of having stolen it from a child. One early suggestion is a voluntary (?) registration list, available online, of G1G1 owners, but this doesn't help restore the "stigma" associated with an adult carrying an XO.

See the discussion at OLPCNews.com

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