Friday, November 18, 2005

Sony's latest high-tech product: Music CDs equipped with spyware

It's not enough to have to worry about evil-genius 15-year-old hackers in Hackensack or renegade Romanian criminal gangs that want to bore their way into your computer to steal your data, money and identity, or to turn your innocent little Dell desktop into a zombie drone that sends out millions of spam e-mails for cheap knockoff Viagra.

Now you've got to worry about Sony, one of the most respected names in technology, sneaking something called a "rootkit" onto your computer when you play one of its music CDs. According to blogger Mark Russinovich, rootkits "are cloaking technologies that hide files, Registry keys, and other system objects from diagnostic and security software, and they are usually employed by malware attempting to keep their implementation hidden."

In less-techie terms, Sony essentially employed a tool of malicious hacking to try to keep CD buyers from copying its music onto extra CDs or iPods. But the rootkit did much more - including opening CD-users' computers to other harmful spyware that might be impossible to detect with ordinary methods, and getting Sony into a whale of a public-relations pickle.

Last month, Russinovich detailed the mess in a blog entry. On Wednesday, Russinovich declared victory in his blog: almost total capitulation by Sony, including the recall of the offending CDs. (If those accounts are too technical, here's a good overview of the story from USA Today columnist Andrew Kantor.)

I've never been convinced by the argument that information, music, or anything else people create or assemble through their labors, "just wants to be free." As a professional writer, I believe creative work has value, and I know that much of it would never be created but for mechanisms of compensating the writers or artists. I'd hate to return to an era when artists required individual wealthy patrons to survive.

But increasingly, I find myself rooting against others - Sony, for one - who make the same argument. Computers and the Internet are extraordinary tools for creativity - for creating, distributing and, yes, sharing creative products. If I buy its music, what right should Sony have to stop me from listening to it on my iPod? For that matter, why isn't its secretly installing a rootkit on my computer a crime?

40 Comments:

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