The Smell of Sterile Burning
There’s a growing noise about Sony’s apparent attempt to install digital rights management software usually associated with bad guys trying to maintain control of a compromised computer: Mark’s Sysinternals Blog: Sony, Rootkits and Digital Rights Management Gone Too Far:
The entire experience was frustrating and irritating. Not only had Sony put software on my system that uses techniques commonly used by malware to mask its presence, the software is poorly written and provides no means for uninstall. Worse, most users that stumble across the cloaked files with a RKR scan will cripple their computer if they attempt the obvious step of deleting the cloaked files.
While I believe in the media industry’s right to use copy protection mechanisms to prevent illegal copying, I don’t think that we’ve found the right balance of fair use and copy protection, yet. This is a clear case of Sony taking DRM too far.
The comments below Mark Russinovich’s post reveal not only growing frustration with such clumsy attempts to control what users do with CDs they buy from legitimate sources, but it may also prompt a class-action suit against the company in the U.S. since early versions of the End User Licence Agreement on the software may not have covered such software installation. A representative of SF-based Green Welling LLP has posted a comment asking to hear from “any California residents that have experienced this problem before the EULA was changed. We have looked at many DRM cases and Sony went too far with this particular scheme”. (The End User License Agreement originally, according to Russinovich, made “no mention of the fact that I was agreeing to have software put on my system that I couldn’t uninstall”.) Bruce Schneier asks whether Sony may have “violated the the Computer Misuse Act in the UK? If this isn’t clearly in the EULA, they have exceeded their privilege on the customer’s system by installing a rootkit to hide their software.”
Sony deny that their software is malware or spyware: Their FAQ says “the protection software simply acts to prevent unlimited copying and ripping from discs featuring this protection solution. It is otherwise inactive. The software does not collect any personal information nor is it designed to be intrusive to your computer system. Also, the protection components are never installed without the consumer first accepting the End User License Agreement.”
According to eWeek, the technology has a name: ‘sterile burning’. And it’s built by a British company called First 4 Internet, whose CEO, Mathew Gilliat-Smith, is quoted as saying it’s not a rootkit but part of a copy protection system designed to balance security and ease of use for the CD buyer. First 4 Internet call it XCP for Extended Copy Protection which “aims to provide effective levels of protection against the unauthorised copying of digital audio and data files without compromising sound quality and playability. XCP helps to protect the rights of Artists and Record Labels while accommodating consumer needs for ‘fair use’ copying.” More specifically, it
protects the content of an audio disc without compromising playability or quality. By using a range of methodologies, including the construction of multiple protection layers, limiting the ROM player accessibility to the provided player software and encapsulating the Red Book audio content, XCP can be used by content owners to help protect digital content from unauthorised copying.
It was first shipped by Sony BMG in March. A new version has been developed with features which, eWeek says, “respond to many of the questions Russinovich raised in his analysis” and will be available in new Sony BMG CDs. But will it be too late by then? Who in their right mind would risk buying a Sony BMG CD?