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The original anti-piracy hack

Bizarre British case offers precedent

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Hey, all you Peer-to-Peer Piracy Prevention Act purveyors! I have a can't-miss technology development plan for you. Buried deep in the stacks of ancient cyber-history, it is called the tale of the AIDS Information Trojan horse.

It goes like this: in December 1989, thousands of floppies containing what claimed to be an interactive database on AIDS and the risks factors associated with the disease were mailed to attendees at a World Health Organization meeting and subscribers to an English computing magazine. Belonging to the "PC Cyborg Corporation," the software on the diskettes contained a licensing agreement which should be of keen interest to anti-piracy entertainment industry legal enforcers.

"If you install [this] on a microcomputer...then under terms of this license you agree to pay PC Cyborg Corporation in full for the cost of leasing these programs," it read. The cost, $378 U.S., was to be sent to a post office box in Panama.

Continuing balefully, it stated: "In the case of your breach of this license agreement, PC Cyborg reserves the right to take legal action necessary to recover any outstanding debts payable to PC Cyborg Corporation and to use program mechanisms to ensure termination of your use... These program mechanisms will adversely affect other program applications... You are hereby advised of the most serious consequences of your failure to abide by the terms of this license agreement; your conscience may haunt you for the rest of your life... and your [PC] will stop functioning normally... You are strictly prohibited from sharing [this product] with others..."

The "install" program for the AIDS Information program contained licensing enforcement strategies, of a sort, that you, the Peer-to-Peer-Piracy preventing programmer, may wish to copy. It placed a counter in the start-up routine of the computer and after ninety reboots (deemed a sufficient time to pay for the intellectual goods) it initiated a process that encrypted the names of most of the files on the hard disk.

The data remained intact, however, and after an additional marking of the file directories as hidden, the system was rendered unusable -- except, of course, that the user could read the demands to renew the license and the instructions on contacting PC Cyborg for help in recovery from the denial-of-service.

Both licensing agreement and programming techniques of the software are very adaptable to any condition under which an entertainment industry corporation might wish to smite file-sharing scofflaws. And while we won't give away the juicy details here, the efficiency of it could be improved. Hint: The original Trojan was snail mailed -- but Hollywood is no longer chained to such clumsy distribution.

Insanity Defense

However, the anti-piracy zealot will also want to know that the creator of the AIDS Information Trojan horse, an American named Dr. Joseph Popp, was sniffed out by members of the British anti-virus industry, New Scotland Yard was put on the hunt, and as the cry of "Blackmail!" rose to the Anglo heavens the alleged extortionware was added to anti-virus scanners everywhere.

Now, it is well known that some U.S. congressmen feel that with proper legislation, anti-piracy warriors can be immunized against prosecution for imitation of AIDS Info-style technology. But the good planner will nevertheless want to take into account the possibility that other shires might not be so taken with his work.

Dr. Popp, after all, was named on a New Scotland Yard arrest warrant and eventually extradited to Brixton Prison.

The good news is that Popp, even though charged with eleven counts of blackmail, withstood legal challenge. At first, the argument was that the software was made to raise money for AIDS research. When tied definitively to the criminal evidence, Popp was said to have suffered a psychotic episode so severe the court dismissed the case and banished him back to America.

The sophisticated Hollywood hacker can use this knowledge.

If dragged into court or thrown to the wolves of public censure by the media, the wearing of a condom on the nose or hair curlers in unorthodox locations -- ala Popp -- would persuade authorities that the entire business was the work of someone non compos mentis. A bracing holiday in a psychiatric unit would also be part of the defense.

It should be a cinch for the Hollywood anti-piracy hacker to exhibit convincing signs of mental illness and endure the minor inconvenience of rotten publicity. The daily complementary spoonful of lithium carbonate would help the pulse rate go down, too.

(More on the case of the AIDS Information Trojan horse can be read on-line in the archives of Virus Bulletin magazine.)

© 2002 SecurityFocus.com, all rights reserved.

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