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DRM 'will be cracked' says iTunes hacker

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According to the Australian researcher who cracked the authentication used by Apple's iTunes software, current-generation Digital Rights Management (DRM) will never work.

David Hammerton, a 20-year-old Arts-Science student, reverse-engineered iTunes' authentication measures last week, allowing non-iTunes clients to connect to Apple's servers. It was the second time he had managed to crack the authentication, however this time it took him just eight hours to break the brand-new iTunes 4.5, which had been patched against his previous research.

"The first time it took me a week to do it," said Hammerton, known online as "Crazney". "The second time I knew what to look for, so it only took me eight hours,"

The authentication algorithm built by Apple relied heavily on the use of MD5 checksums. It was the checksum code itself that Apple changed to lock out Hammerton's earlier crack. The engineers changed the MD5 routine to what he jokingly calls "iMD5", and Hammerton modified his first crack to compensate.

Apple declined to comment on the hack.

By using the software libraries he's developed, it is possible for programmers to create applications capable of downloading and saving music stored on iTunes servers. However, that functionality has been deliberately left out of the program Hammerton built around his libraries, which is designed to act as a player only. "It doesn't allow people to pirate music," Hammerton said. "It's five lines of code but it's not something I wanted to do."

While iTunes authentication isn't a DRM measure as such, Hammerton believes technology is becoming too restrictive, which is why he chose to break what he sees as an anti-competitive restriction on the use of the iTunes software. "Linux is my primary desktop operating system and I wanted to be able to play my music on my desktop, and I just don't like being locked out of stuff," he said.

"A Pretty Poor Job"

Not that he's too worried about being locked out. Hammerton says the current generation of DRM and "anti-interoperability" measures will never beat geeks with too much time on their hands.

Even some in the online music business agree. "My personal view is that it's inevitable that all forms of DRM... will be cracked," says Domenic Carosa, chief executive of the online music venture Destra Corporation. Nevertheless, "DRM is imperative, particularly when it comes to record companies. They need to feel secure in selling their music legally and digitally. They do that because of DRM," Carosa said.

But Hammerton's work, and efforts like it, aren't the end of the world for the record companies, Carosa argues. Because those with major objections to DRM due to interoperability concerns are essentially a fringe group, damage to the broader market through piracy is unlikely.

"I would say that if I look forward five years we're going to have the exact situation we have now. We'll have the high-tech types wanting to be able to use their music in every way shape or form. They'll want to transfer their music to devices that don't have DRM," he said. "I don't think average consumers really care about it. I don't think they ever will."

As yet, Apple hasn't yet contacted or legally threatened Hammerton. Even if it did, he believes the stand he's making is one of principle, and he claims he would persevere even if he knew his actions were illegal.

Hammerton says he is confident he'll be able to stay ahead of Apple's authentication measures if its engineers stay on the same path. "In terms of what they're doing at the moment... obfuscating the code, it's a pretty poor job. I wouldn't give much credit to the guys who've done it."

Copyright © 2004, 0

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