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By Cory Doctorow

Junk Science

Film studios and record companies have met the enemy, and it is us

Cory Doctorow is European Affairs Coordinator for the EFF, the co-editor of Boing Boing (boingboing.net), and the author, most recently, of Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (Tor Books, 2005)

You know why I gave up smoking? Junk science. It wasn’t just that the things were killing me—at 32, I barely noticed the first stirrings of health effects from my lifelong pack-a-day habit—it was that the scumbag tobacco companies had perverted science by bribing sock-puppet scientists into uttering the baldest lies to Congress, so that the undeniable toxicity of cigs became an area of debate. That perversion of truth got me so mad that I couldn’t bring myself to put another cent into their pockets.

Today, a new group of scumbags—Hollywood studios, recording companies, snake-oil technology peddlers—have found a new way to lie convincingly about science and have perverted real, vital human knowledge with self-serving crapola.

The issue here is information security. A decade ago, the scrambling systems used to protect private information were classed as munitions, kept off the market by paranoid National Security Agency feds who warned that the systems would aid terrorists and pirates. Since the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) won a landmark case in 1999 (Bernstein v. U.S. Dept. of Justice), Americans have had the right to use real, solid scrambling systems to make sure that bad guys aren’t eavesdropping. Every time you send a secure credit-card number over the Internet, you’ve got EFF to thank for your privacy.

Since World War II, we’ve operated on the principle of least-secrecy. Secrets are hard to keep, after all, so if you want to make a good scrambling system, the fewer secrets it has, the better. Today’s serious scrambling systems are public: Anyone can find out how they work. Yet even if you know how they work, and even if you have the scrambled message, you still can’t unscramble it, because these systems require a key, and the key is a secret. Keeping a short, changeable key secret is a lot easier than keeping the workings of the system and the messages that it protects a secret.

Hollywood and the recording industry scramble their movies and music before they give them to you, because they have a burning, irrational desire to ensure that you can’t do anything with your music and video unless they authorize it. If you’ve ever tried to watch an American DVD on a Japanese player, you know that DVD players use software that has a descrambling key to unlock the media. The catch is that anyone who wants to manufacture a DVD player or computer has to license the key and promise that when its software unscrambles the content, it will restrict you to the actions proscribed by the publisher: Maybe you can’t print an e-book, or take a screenshot from a video, or turn a song into an MP3 to load onto your iPod.

In this scenario, you are the attacker, the person from whom the key must be kept. Because if you find out the secret key, you can descramble the media without using a crippled player, and so gain access to all the features that The Man has decided you don’t deserve. But in fact every player you own has a descrambling key built into it. Otherwise, your DVD player couldn’t descramble your movies and show them to you. Otherwise your e-book reader couldn’t turn your books into readable text. Otherwise your music player couldn’t play your music.

Here comes the junk: The entertainment companies say that this is a special kind of scrambling system, one that is kept secure by laws, not science. They bought the laws—like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) in the US, the EUCD in Europe, and the Anti-Unfair Competition Law in Japan—that make it illegal to tell someone how their scrambling systems work. It’s even illegal to tell someone where she can find out how these systems work!

The DMCA has resulted in the ugly spectacle of a magazine publisher being sued for printing articles about the math of scrambling, of a Russian researcher being thrown in a US federal prison for exposing the failures in scrambling systems, of a distinguished Princeton professor being threatened with the law for daring to propose a learned talk on signal processing to an academic conference.

It is all for naught. Every piece of media that has ever been scrambled by these junk-science systems has been unscrambled by someone who extracted the key in her player—keys that can be downloaded, free of charge, from the Internet right now. Doing so requires no more technical know-how than is required to perform a basic Google search. This junk science doesn’t stop crooks from stamping out billions of counterfeits and selling them off blankets on the sidewalk. It doesn’t stop college kids from gaining ready access to them through their dorms’ Internet connections.

What this junk science does accomplish is the censorship of people who point out that Hollywood’s emperor is bare-ass naked. What it accomplishes is making sure that legit companies can’t build a device that’s better than the ones that Hollywood has permitted. Junk-science security doesn’t protect Hollywood from piracy, it protects it from competition.

It’s gotten so bad that people who publish details of how these systems (don’t) work are accused of being anti-security—like accusing anti-smokers of being opposed to healthiness.

Loving science means loving the truth. When the entertainment companies’ war on their customers costs us the truth, it crosses the line. These companies have perverted truth for their own ends and the whole of humanity pays the price.


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