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To read comments to this article, go here
MS' Reaction to Sony's Rootkit Raises Some Questions
Sunday, November 13 2005 @ 07:10 PM EST

When the news first broke in the mainstream press that Windows expert and blogger Mark Russinovich (he wrote a book about Windows for Microsoft) had found that Sony's anti-piracy efforts had gone too far and that Sony's DRM was installing an undetectable rootkit on customers' computers which they couldn't safely remove, the first reaction from Microsoft was guarded. They were concerned, they said, and were evaluating what, if anything, to do:
Microsoft, which also ships an anti-spyware program, recently renamed "Windows Defender," hasn't yet decided whether it will also flag the Sony DRM software as malicious code, the spokesperson said.

"Microsoft's Windows Defender and the Malicious Software Removal Tool [MSRT] have established objective criteria to determine what code will be classified for removal. We are evaluating the current situation to determine if any action from Microsoft is necessary," the spokesperson wrote in an e-mail statement.

Computer Associates and Symantec had already announced they would add detection of the Sony rootkit to their security software, but Microsoft needed time to think. Now, they've decided to zap the rootkit also:

The software giant's Windows AntiSpyware application will be updated to add a detection and removal signature for the rootkit features used in the XCP digital rights management technology. . . .

Detection and removal of the XCP rootkit will also appear in Windows Defender, the next version of Windows AntiSpyware when that makeover ships.

Meanwhile, antivirus firms are already warning about a new trojan in the wild taking advantage of the rootkit. This story raisess some questions. These CDs with rootkits have been sold for 8 months. Where was Microsoft? Why didn't they and antivirus companies notice this rootkit themselves long ago?

When the story first hit, here's the explanation given by First 4 Internet, the company that wrote the rootkit for Sony1 :

The creator of the copy-protection software, a British company called First 4 Internet, said the cloaking mechanism was not a risk, and that its team worked closely with big antivirus companies such as Symantec to ensure that was the case. The cloaking function was aimed at making it difficult, though not impossible, to hack the content protection in ways that have been simple in similar products, the company said.

So, Symantec and "the big antivirus companies" already knew about the rootkit? According to this statement, it seems they did. Are they then liable as well as Sony?

Groklaw member alangmead asked another valid question in a comment to an earlier article: Does that mean that Microsoft knew also and was complicit, deliberately ignoring the rootkit? Alternatively, if not, might one not legitimately ask if Microsoft's anti-spyware is "sophisticated enough to detect the system changes" made by Sony's DRM? Which explanation is worse?

I can't help but wonder about a third possibility. Charlie Demerjian recently wrote about what he views as the new Microsoft PR technique. He says because Microsoft lacks credibility, they don't put out press releases on certain stories. Instead they leak it to the press or to blogs. I'll let him describe it for you:

MS has taken to 'slips', 'admissions' and 'leaks' in ways that it 'really should not have' done. The reporter pounces, and the Microsoft spokesperson gets all defensive and asks that it not be published, blah blah blah. Memos leaked to the right people have a similar effect, as do blog entries as a first line of press knowledge. Few things work better than a grass roots spreading of 'facts' that the mainstream press 'notices'.

Few PR efforts or change of direction come in press releases any more, they all come from blogs and leaked memos. The people who pick the stories up and grassroots spread them tend not to mock as much as the real press. Those that do can be easily laughed off by real PR as the lunatic fringe. Basically, Microsoft is using the boggosphere to do its PR for them, and we are supposed to be the pawns.

Is that what happened here? I have no idea, but I know it's the right question. I'm not in love with Sony at the moment, but fair is fair.

I thought it was important to mention all this, because of the litigation. Just how deep does this betrayal of customers go? F-Secure, who was not part of the complicit agreement apparently and discovered the rootkit independently, according to Russinovich, explained on November 4 on their blog why rootkits are a security problem:

A member of our IT security team pointed out quite chilling thought about what might happen if record companies continue adding rootkit based copy protection into their CDs.

In order to hide from the system a rootkit must interface with the OS on very low level and in those areas theres no room for error.

It is hard enough to program something on that level, without having to worry about any other programs trying to do something with same parts of the OS.

Thus if there would be two DRM rootkits on the same system trying to hook same APIs, the results would be highly unpredictable. Or actually, a system crash is quite predictable result in such situation.

So imagine a situation where Joe Customer buys CD from label A and another CD from label B. Label A uses third party DRM from company X and Label B uses from company Y.

Then our user first plays one of the CDs in his PC, and everything works fine. But after he starts playing the second CD, his computer crashes and wont boot again. This is something I would not like to associate with buying legal CDs.

The Department of Homeland Security agrees. This IP protection is now threatening our security. How did everyone lose their sense of proportion? I earlier put a link to the audio of Stewart Baker, Department of Homeland Security Assistant Secretary for Policy, in News Picks, but what he said is so important, I wish to repeat it here:

"It's very important to remember that it's your intellectual property -- it's not your computer. And in the pursuit of protection of intellectual property, it's important not to defeat or undermine the security measures that people need to adopt in these days.

"If we have an avian flu outbreak here and it is even half as bad as the 1918 flu, we will be enormously dependent on being able to get remote access for a large number of people, and keeping the infrastructure functioning is going to be a matter of life and death and we take it very seriously as well." - DHS Ass't Sec'y on Policy Stewart Baker

Copyright infringement is important to companies like Sony, of course, but if, when enforcing their rights, they end up exceeding their actual rights and endanger our lives in their quest to protect mere money, something is seriously out of balance. I also most sincerely hope that the DHS realizes the security value of the GNU/Linux operating system, as well as MacOSX. If the Department is relying exclusively on Windows, I am frankly terrified.

By the way, if you'd like to hear the immortal words from Sony about rootkits and how customers don't know what they are and so needn't care about them, here you go. Your choices to listen to the audio are Windows Media Player or RealPlayer. Is it time, folks, for websites to broaden the choices they offer people? Some of us are afraid to use Windows, you know.

And for any of you who are staring at your Windows computer and wondering just how bad it is in your personal case, may I encourage you to think about GNU/Linux systems as a remedy? It's one advantage of FOSS software that there is no code you are not allowed to examine. That's part of what the Free means in Free Sofware and the Open in Open Source, that you are free to look at the code and are free from secret corporate dirty tricks and private gentlemen's agreements that put your security at risk.


1Note that the article referenced was later [at least by November 23, 2005] changed to read: "The creator of the copy-protection software, a British company called First 4 Internet, said the cloaking mechanism was not a risk. The company's team has worked regularly with big antivirus companies to ensure the safety of its software, and to make sure it is not picked up as a virus, he said."


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