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'Net Insider


Sony's anti-piracy 'khesterex thath.'


By Scott Bradner, Network World, 11/14/05


The latest entry in the "all my customers are thieves" parade is Sony Music, but no one could see the company marching along. Sony was finally discovered in this parade when a researcher found and disabled the Romulan- or Klingon-like cloaking system that the company had surreptitiously installed in PCs that had been used legally to play some Sony music CDs.


The discovery raised quite a ruckus, just like the last time a music company tried to slip in restrictions on the buyer's ability to use a product. You would think music companies would learn to just be clear about what they are doing.


The arrogance of companies that secretly install software when the customer uses a product as it is intended to be used is quite amazing. Such companies act as if the only use of the customer's PC is in conjunction with their product. They do not consider what would happen if all vendors installed their own special software; the user's PC could quickly become unusable because of hundreds of programs running at the same time.


But the situation with the Sony system is a particularly bad one. Not only does Sony sneak software onto your machine, but the software could be used to hide all sorts of malware. With this demonstration, Sony also has told the bad guys how to make their evil adware and spyware even harder to find and eliminate. Internet researcher Mark Russinovich has posted a detailed description of the Sony abomination and how it works.


Even worse, hundreds of other companies and Internet attackers could decide to write and surreptitiously install their own cloaking software on your computer. Each of these could be hiding different sets of programs.


Once installed (by listening to a Sony music CD on your PC), the Sony software renders invisible any program whose name begins with $sys$. That is a very useful function if you are in the business of stealing secrets from unsuspecting PC users. You can render invisible any software, big or small - just like the Klingon cloaking device of "Star Trek" fame.


Who knew that Sony was a Klingon front company? Well, come to think of it, that might explain the text in some of the instructions I've seen from them over the years. Maybe they were partially translated from Klingon.


Sony installing any software on your computer, just because you want to listen to music that you legally purchased, is a bad idea. But not making it clear that this is the bargain the user has agreed to is cheating. It's a case of a company not having the guts to be upfront about the bargain so a potential purchaser can decide whether he wants to buy a product that requires him to agree with that bargain.


According to one of the Klingon Web sites, there is an old saying that goes: "When you choose to cheat to win a battle, you have already lost." I expect that by trying to hide what it was doing, Sony has managed to lose a battle it might otherwise have at least fought to a draw - a "khesterex thath" (Klingon for "screwed-up situation") indeed.


Disclaimer: As far as I can find out, Harvard does not offer a class in Klingon (or in cloaking software or devices), so the above observation must be mine.