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February 2006

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Internet Security 2006: It’s a Control Issue


by Glen Emerson Morris
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Based on the headlines, 2005 seemed to have had fewer large scale virus attacks on business and home computer systems. Unfortunately, the truth was far different. There were just as many attacks as 2004, only the sources and targets changed. Instead of coming from lone individuals seeking international headlines, the attacks came from organized crime seeking banking information, and rogue advertisers seeking to hijack desktop computers to send millions of spam emails. Many of these attacks were not reported to the press simply to avoid bad publicity.

In many ways 2006 will be far more difficult for both business and consumer use of computers. It’s not just about security anymore. It’s about control.

One of the original selling points for the personal computer was that it offered independence from the corporate mainframe. The PC gave people control over what work they did, and how and when they did it. However, not everyone was happy with this.

Since the development of the PC, there have been many efforts to undermine individual control over computers. The marketing phrases have been varied, including the client, online software rental, even client/server, but the result is the same. An individual would only have the control over their computer that they were allowed to have by someone else.

Unfortunately, the evolution of the Internet has offered new ways for a variety of interests to limit the control individuals have over their computers.

The first wave of erosion came when software developers began to use the Internet to authenticate applications. One of the best known examples of this is the authentication scheme used by Microsoft to validate the XP home operating system. If you make more than three hardware changes to a computer with XP installed, the computer disables itself until it’s reactivated by Microsoft. Reactivation can be done either over the Internet, or by calling Microsoft and getting an activation key to enter.

Network connectivity gives manufacturers unprecedented control of their products even after they are in the consumers home. Even TV cable based systems are not safe. Tivo owners were recently annoyed to find that a feature allowing them to fast forward through commercials had been significantly restricted. This feature was one of the prime reasons many people bought Tivos in the first place.

The Tivo case is comparable to someone buying a new Ford or Chevrolet with air conditioning, and finding a few months later that the air conditioning feature had been turned off by the manufacturer. For the first time in history, manufactures can remove or restrict a product’s features after its purchase by the consumer.

The next major erosion of PC independence came with the evolution of Digital Rights Management systems. DRM systems, like the infamous Sony example, set restrictions on what people could do with copyrighted material they had purchased.

The critical point here is that DRM systems are not designed to enforce copyright law. They are a method of exercising control over a person’s computer to limit how copyright material can be used. Under current copyright law, consumers are given many rights over how they can use copyrighted material. Most DRM systems go well beyond the law and make many legal uses impossible, like the creation of backup copies of CDs. DVDs and software applications.

Another example of DRM gone amuck is Apple’s iTunes. Originally, people could burn a CD with the same play list 10 times. That number has been reduced to 7, and could well be reduced further in the future. In addition, songs purchased on Apple’s iTune’s Website cannot be played on any systems other than Apple computers or iPods. This is comparable to buying a CD from Sony and finding it will only playback on Sony stereos and computers.

Bad as things were in 2005, they will get worse in 2006.

This year will introduce DRM systems based on hardware, not just software. Many computer motherboards will soon include a chip called the Trusted Platform Module, designed to support a variety of rights management and security implementations. It will add additional cost to each computer sold, and be justified on the grounds that it makes the computer more secure for the user. In reality, odds are most of the time the TPM chip will be used to limit how users can use the applications they paid for (or didn’t pay for, or installed on more than one computer).

Microsoft’s new operating system, called Vista, will be using the TPM system, and one of the results is that the system will block access to the computer if the content of the hard drive has been compromised. Given Microsoft’s well earned reputation for security loopholes in their products, this feature could probably be used to maliciously deactivate computers, either by individuals, or any group that would like to see American ecommerce brought to a standstill. If Microsoft can shut down your computer, so can a hacker.

The greatest hypocrisy of the current state of digital rights management is that while it has been justified by manufacturers as necessary to stop revenue losses due to piracy and unauthorized use of their products, the actual cost of implementing DRM has largely been shifted to the consumer, especially in terms of hardware cost and processor and bandwidth usage. The Sony DRM software was estimated to constantly use two percent of a computer’s total computing power. Install another 24 applications with DRMs like that, a number possible if the independent labels start using DRM, and half the computer's processing power is gone. In addition, the practice of using the Internet to authorize product use could significantly impact Internet response times.

If this loss of control trend continues, it could have long term detrimental effects on the American economy. Some of America's biggest competitors, including India and China, are well on the way to standardizing on Linux and open source software, in part, because of the control issue. This is a strong argument for the American business community to adopt Linux and open source applications.

Unless businesses and consumers draw the line, and soon, America will have a deeply flawed, severely insecure and needlessly expensive computer infrastructure incapable of competing internationally. And we will only have gotten what we paid for.

Glen Emerson Morris has worked as a technology consultant for Network Associates, Yahoo!, Ariba, WebMD, Inktomi, Adobe, Apple and Radius, and is the developer of the Advertising & Marketing Review Data CD.

Copyright 1994 - 2010 by Glen Emerson Morris All Rights Reserved

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