Homeland security urges DRM rootkit ban

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US government officials took Sony BMG to task over its controversial use of rootkit-style copy protection at a security conference this week. If the technology proves harmful to consumers, tougher laws and regulations might be proposed, a senior Department of Homeland Security exec warned.

"Legislation or regulation may not be appropriate in all cases, but it may be warranted in some circumstances," said Jonathan Frenkel, director of law enforcement policy with the DHS's Border and Transportation Security Directorate, PC World reports.

Sony BMG's flawed approach to Digital Rights Management technology was exposed after security researchers discovered XCP anti-piracy software, that shipped with some of Sony BMG's music CDs, masked its presence and introduced a vulnerability that hackers and virus writers began to target. Under pressure, Sony was forced to recall discs loaded with the technology and create an exchange program for consumers.

Sony came in for yet more criticism after it emerged that SunComm's MediaMax anti-piracy software, used as an alternative to First4Internet's XCP program on Sony BMG CDs shipped in the US and Canada, also created a security risk. The first version of the patch released to address the SunnComm MediaMax version 5 software had a flaw of its own. Security researchers are currently reviewing a second patch.

DHS officials had a meeting with Sony BMG shortly after the story broke during which the entertainment reps were read the riot act. "The message was certainly delivered in forceful terms that this was certainly not a useful thing," Frenkel said.

Government officials are concerned that the rootkit tactic, if repeated, could leave consumers' systems open to hacker attack. The DHS lacks the power to push through laws itself, but it does have the ears of legislators, if not all the elements of the entertainment industry.

Despite the adverse publicity provoked by the Sony BMG incident, the entertainment industry is still experimenting with the use of rootkit-style copy protection technology. For example, it emerged earlier this week that the German language DVD release of Mr and Mrs Smith, which stars Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie as a married couple who hide their jobs as assassins from each other, contained a rootkit. The Settec Alpha-DISC copy protection system used on the DVD incorporates rootkit-like features to hide itself, according to an analysis by anti-virus firm F-Secure.

"The recent Sony experience shows us that we need to be thinking about how to ensure consumers aren't surprised by what their software is programmed to do," Frenkel said during a panel discussion at the RSA 2006 security conference in San Jose this week. ®

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