Adventures In Audio with Audio Masterclass
Sony CD puts spyware on your computer

Sony CD puts spyware on your computer


The principal is well founded and sound – buy a CD, use the music any way you see fit for your own personal enjoyment – on a CD player, on your computer, your personal media player, in your car, as part of a compilation, on your home networked media center – any damn where you choose – you have paid for that music and expect to be able to listen to it freely.

In the US, you have the right to do exactly that, according to the Audio Home Recording Act. In the UK, being a country without a constitution, you don't have much in the way of rights in any respect, so whatever you do you had better do it behind firmly closed doors.

However, record companies have long sought a means to prevent copying, so that you can only use the music you have paid for in ways that they deem acceptable.

Several anti-copying techniques have been developed over the years. Philips – one of the creators of the CD format – has always said that a silver disc with audio and copy protection software is not a CD. It just looks like one, and they refuse to allow use of the CD-Audio logo for such discs.

Sony, the other joint creator of the CD format is more aggressive and have developed a copy protection system that many will find quite literally scary in the way it works.

Suppose you are foolhardy enough to buy a silver disc (it's not a CD remember) called Get Right With The Man by Van Zant and play it on your computer. The first thing that you will find is that you have to play the disc using the music player software supplied on it. Secondly you will find that your ability to download the music and copy it is restricted.

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So already you are probably pissed off that you can't use the music on the disc any way you want, you can only use it in ways Sony allows.

But what you don't realize that having installed the custom music player, you have also unwittingly installed a 'rootkit' on your PC.

What's a rootkit?

If you are a hacker, then you will know already that a rootkit is a software that conceals other software from view. If you were a virus writer then you would use a rootkit to conceal your virus from virus-protection software.

In fact rootkits are a feature of viruses, worms, trojans and spyware. If you have a rootkit on your computer, you are in deep trouble. Something bad is going to happen ranging from your computer not working properly, to your files getting trashed, to being linked to a 'zombie' network mailing out spam or file-sharing illegal material (and I don't mean merely illegal – I mean child pornography and other deeply distasteful stuff).

If your computer seems to be running slowly, or you can hear the hard drive continuously churning when you are connected to the Internet, that is a warning sign.

Of course Sony is not in this kind of business and is probably not installing spyware or anything else on your computer – but it is installing software without your knowledge, and that software hides itself so deeply that even an experienced computer expert will have difficulty finding, identifying and removing it.

And would you call me cynical if I suggested that spyware might be the next step? Clearly, any record company would love to know what CDs you are playing and what your favorite tracks are. And of course how many copies you are making for your own personal use.

If you don't find all of this scary, then you should read again and consider, because it is.

But here is the killer – Sony's 'Extended Copy Protection' (XCP), as they call it, is a means for controlling the duplication of contentl, and as such it is protected by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in the US, which states that it is illegal to bypass any technology measure in place that protects copyright material.

Oh, and Sony's XCP software will consume around 1 – 2% of your system resources all the time you have your computer switched on – and it is illegal to remove it! Thanks a bunch Sony.

So if you remove Sony's rootkit from your computer, you are committing an offense. And that presupposes that you know it is there in the first place, and have the knowledge or means to remove it.

I think it is time for Audio Masterclass to make a clear statement on digital rights management… believes that anyone buying recorded music for their own personal enjoyment should be able to copy freely that music to whatever devices they want as many times as they want. In return for that freedom they should not give or sell copies to others. If they sell or give away their original CD, they should destroy all the copies they have made.

If someone could express that thought more snappily in a form that would look good printed on a t-shirt, I would love to hear it.

Since the above was written, it has emerged that players of the online game World of Warcraft are using Sony's rootkit to cheat.

Cheating in online games is not exactly unknown, and Blizzard Entertainment, developers of World of Warcraft uses a program known as Warden to detect files used for cheating purpose on players' computers.

However, savvy players have found that these files can be hidden using Sony's rootkit. All that has to be done apparently is to prefix files $sys$ and they are deeply hidden from view.

A further comment since the above was written. Sony has relented and ceased to use this particular DRM technique. Not only that, they have recalled all CDs and offered to replace them.

However, it is likely that very many infected CDs will remain 'in the wild'. Sony should be very sorry for this episode.

David Mellor

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David Mellor