December 22, 2005

It's Not Always Nice To Hide Things, Part 2

It's ok, you can open your eyes now. Everyone's managed to pull themselves back from the edge of their respective cliffs, except for that one 17-year-old. But it's ok. He only fell two feet.

While computers and CDs were becoming well-known and popular, another new technology was taking shape. Obviously, this required another bright and intelligent young person. History is full of bright and intelligent young people. Odd, how often they die early, horrible deaths. At any rate, soon after computers began to be hooked up into networks called 'networks', he looked at the wire trailing out of the rear of his machine, followed it with his eyes into the wall, and was hit with a stupendous revelation.

"If I make a program that can somehow be planted onto another computer, I could give it the capability to spread itself to other computers. Furthermore, I could make another program to hide the first program where even the computer itself wouldn't be able to see it, so my software would be very difficult to remove. With this, I could... could... RULE THE WORLD!!!!! Bwah-ha-ha-ha!"

Unfortunately, his house was demolished by mutant termites 23 days later. But not before he could tell someone else about his software ideas. These grew into 'viruses' and 'rootkits', respectively. They were used widely for things like "Trespassing onto other people's computers without their permission," "Causing havoc and mayhem," and "Being generally annoying and disliked." The bright and intelligent young person's name would have been infamous, were it not for the fact that the mutant termites also devoured all his forms of id.

Clearly, a sample of such famous software should be immemorialized by including it on music CDs which would then be bought by the unsuspecting public. Sony BMG's subcontractor, First 4 Internet, having been tasked with creating legendary DRM, decided the 'rootkit' idea deserved just such an honor. This rootkit would be used to hide the DRM software, so the crafty users couldn't worm their way around it in their unending quest to play music on unsupported music players. What's more, since it would hide everything, and hide itself, no one would know the difference. And if anyone did find out, they would be eternally grateful for the lengths to which Sony BMG and First 4 Internet had gone to prevent them from illegally doing illegal things.

It would hide itself, and the DRM software, by putting a few extra characters at the front of the names of the things to be hidden. Not only does a rose by any other name not smell as sweet, under certain conditions it turns invisible. Presumably by invoking random alternate dimensions.

Unfortunately, someone found out. This someone was testing a program designed to find rootkits, presumably with the idea that rootkits can be used to hide evil programs. This someone poked around in the rootkit a bit, and soon discovered where it came from. At this point he announced it to the world. A small portion of the world was shocked. A large portion of the world was oblivious. A larger portion of the world asked why the small portion of the world was shouting in the large portion of the world's ear.

This discovery, of course, was somewhat unprecedented. Not only did the little clicky-thingy that popped up when one of these CDs was inserted into a computer say nothing about the rootkit being installed, it also failed to mention that the rootkit could be used by evil programs to hide themselves from the computer's owner. Hitherto, it had not been widely presumed that music CDs had this capability. This was mostly due to the general public associating music CDs with 'music' and not with 'software that could let evil programs hide themselves on your computer'.

Removing this rootkit, once installed, proved troublesome. Under normal circumstances, doing so disabled the CD drive in the computer. Presumably, if you didn't want to use the DRM (and rootkit) to play one CD, you obviously didn't want to play any. Shortly after the discovery, Sony BMG released a small program which was designed to remove the rootkit. Unfortunately, it had a major security flaw. It allowed outside software to reboot one's computer and do other nasty things to it.

About a week later, Sony BMG decided to stop shipping CDs which included the rootkit. This was, of course, after somebody very high up said: "Most people, I think, don't even know what a rootkit is, so why should they care?" Most people are, I think, also somewhat shaky on what exactly a flu virus is. Yet they continue to care as they line up for vaccinations.

Microsoft, the uncrowned king of Software Which Includes Security Holes, added the initial rootkit to its list of dangerous software. The US Department of Homeland Security had unkind things to say about Sony BMG and First 4 Internet. Eventually, Sony BMG recalled the CDs. At about this same time, other Sony BMG CDs were found to install DRM software which included other, different, security holes. Not long afterwards, Sony BMG released a patch which was found to include yet more security holes. Other CDs were found to install software which called home even when the user specifically did not agree. Sony BMG is currently being sued by various states for having illegal spyware on its CDs, presumably due to state Attorney Generals having no sense of humor. Or possibly for breaking state laws.

And to think, this could all have been avoided by simply considering software 'not music', and leaving it off music CDs. And thus today's lesson:

"When selling someone a car, wise it is not to include a secret feature which causes it to crash when heading towards Chicago."

Posted by Ardith at 07:20 PM | TrackBack

December 19, 2005

It's Not Always Nice To Hide Things, Part 1

Today's story/lesson is called "What Not To Do When Distributing Content." Otherwise known as "Why Certain People At Sony BMG Are Morons."

This is brought to you by that fact that I'm feeling compelled to write about things which have almost no personal bearing on me, the fact that I'm in a slightly snarky mood tonight, and the letter 47.

Once upon a time, there were people called 'musicians'. They played instruments, or sang, or maybe just pounded on things, and had coins or bits of food thrown at them if people liked their music a lot. This also sometimes happened if people just wanted them to shut up and go away. Music was a bit hard to come by, in those times: if you wanted music, you had to bring musicians around in person. This made it rather annoying, not to mention expensive, to have background music while studying. You generally couldn't listen to the same song twice, since nobody could quite remember how they'd performed it last time. Quite coincidentally, people were also fond of drinking large mugs of ale at this time period.

Somebody eventually invented sheet music. This is the person to blame for all the hideously mangled copies of "Fur Elise - 1st Grade Version" lying around, so it's probably just as well I can't remember who it was. At any rate, it soon became all the rage to play pieces of music sort of like they were played the previous time. And the time before that. This also quickly led to repetitive exercises for the training of small children who weren't at all interested in learning how to play the bass violin.

Things managed like this for quite a long time. You still had to hire your musicians and whatnot, but at least you could get a semi-accurate estimate of what the music would sound like. This greatly decreased the number of dirges played at weddings, for instance. Unfortunately, technology was soon to make a completely unprecedented leap. Edison was about to wake up in a cold sweat, with visions of sound-recording devices still running through his brain. Somewhat like sugar-plums, but without the sugar. Or the plums.

Instead, there was much money to be made. Music could now be recorded and played at a later date! Even at a completely different location! The technology grew by leaps and bounds, discarding each new recording media as a bigger and better one poked its golden rays over the horizon. You could now go the store and buy music. You could play it in your house, over and over again. You could annoy your neighbors with it, without going to all the expense of hiring your own personal orchestra! It was an amazing and confusing time. New recording companies sprang up to offer a helping hand to the dumbfounded and hopelessly lost musicians.

At some point, on a slightly different, but still connected, timeline, computers were invented. With them came the idea of digital information, and also the idea of putting small speakers in the computer to make cryptic beeping noises when nothing was working. Eventually, someone realized you could use computer speakers to play music, after storing this music in a form the computer could read, and digital audio was born. Of course, it didn't really take off until some other bright soul came up with a form of media that you could put on top of said speakers without having your music turn into static. This amazing breakthrough was called the CD, which stands for Clinically Depressed. The inventor was going through a difficult stage of life, and didn't believe in acronyms which corresponded to the technology for which they were made.

The recording companies were very happy with this. CDs were cheap to make, and were purported to last longer and still be used to play high-quality music, increasing customer demand. They also were capable of getting scratched, further increasing customer demand. Customer demand being very important, these CDs, and the associated CD players, began to sell quite well, Everyone was enormously pleased with themselves.

Until, one day, the unthinkable happened. Since CD drives had been introduced to computers as a new means of distributing software, some bright, intelligent young person decided that a device to make CDs should sell well. Clearly, it did. The recording companies were slightly shocked. Digital audio, such as that distributed on CDs, could be copied perfectly. And now this power was in the hands of the common man. It was clear that man would only use this power for evil, making hundreds of copies of the CDs they owned, and spreading them all over, depriving the recording companies of all their hard-earned pennies! An outrage, to say the least.

And so the search began for a means to stop this menace and save the economies of the free world. After many years of distributing purely audio CDs, the recording companies began putting little bits of software on the CDs that would be loaded onto computers into which the CDs were inserted. These bits of software were meant to stop people from making gazillions of copies of the CDs they had bought, and distributing them around the world. That was the record companies' job, and they paid the musicians a small percentage of the money made from the sale of these CDs for the privilege. Sometimes this meant that the people who bought the music couldn't make backup copies of the CDs, or play the music in anything except the recording-company-provided music software program, but that was merely an unfortunate side-effect.

However, it was soon discovered that the common man was creative, sneaky, and not to be trusted. People were finding ways to get around these small bits of software, called Digital Rights Management software, sometimes known as Diplodici Really Matter (DRM) software. Creativity is a well-known problem in the hoi polloi. But one company, called Sony BMG, thought it had the solution to this problem.

Since people were finding the software which the CDs so helpfully installed, and were removing it themselves, the obvious answer was to hide the software. And then not tell anyone how it was hidden. Or even, maybe, that parts of it existed. What the common people don't know can't hurt them. This new DRM software only worked haphazardly, as DRM software in the hands of determined copiers is apt to do, so it didn't get installed on all the CDs. Distracted by the Holy Grail of Perfectly-Working Content Management, Sony BMG wandered on, after distributing only 5 million or so of these CDs to stores.

At this point, the entire world suddenly stopped what they were doing, rushed to the nearest cliff, and proceeded to hang from the edge by their fingernails. It was an astounding sight.

Posted by Ardith at 10:29 PM | TrackBack

December 17, 2005

Security Is Everything

I've been sick for a couple of days, and hadn't seen much of the news until today. And so without further ado:

President Acknowledges Approving Secretive Eavesdropping
Agents' Visit Chills UMass Dartmouth Senior

"Yes, we know what you're saying on the phone and what you're reading. But don't worry, we only watch the bad people. You have nothing to worry about. Really. Nobody who's not a terrorist should be reading anything by Chairman Mao, anyway. We're only here to help."


Posted by Ardith at 06:40 PM | TrackBack

December 03, 2005

They Say I'm Old

Today, in the mail, I got a registration card for the AARP.

Posted by Ardith at 10:41 PM | TrackBack