Sony and Spyware
I just read Wade Roush’s piece on Sony and the rootkit affair (“Inside the Spyware Scandal,” May/June 2006), and I was curious about his decision not to discuss the spyware made by SunnComm, whose MediaMax DRM was also a cause of legal action against Sony BMG. SunnComm made spyware DRM software that phoned Sony and let them know what you’d been listening to, and when you ran their uninstaller, it left your PC vulnerable, so you could be hijacked just by looking at a malicious Web page. Even worse, SunnComm installed its malware even if you declined the user agreement and never played or copied the disc.
Also missing was material about the labels under Sony BMG that decried the use of DRM and complained that corporate was hurting their customers. I was also looking for some balance on the DRM stuff from an organization like the Electronic Frontier Foundation; surely EFF was highly relevant to the story, since it was key to the class action settlement Sony reached.
All in all, this seemed like a very incomplete account, especially for a postmortem so long after the dust had settled. It seemed to me to take too many of Sony’s claims at face value without delving into the lessons to be learned from the most significant DRM debacle of the decade.
“Inside the Spyware Scandal” focused entirely on Windows/PC systems. I would be interested to know whether the software on the music CDs attempted an analogous intrusion on other operating systems, particularly Mac OS X.
Wade Roush responds: Regarding Mr. Doctorow’s letter: the article made it clear that the same Sony BMG CDs that contained First 4 Internet’s XCP copy protection software also contained a dual Windows/Mac OS X program called MediaMax, from SunnComm. To answer Mr. Aull’s question: MediaMax did not employ a rootkit, as XCP did, but did attempt an analogous intrusion. As Doctorow and other critics have pointed out, MediaMax installed itself even if users declined the license agreement, came without an uninstaller, and spied on users by sending their Internet addresses to SunnComm servers when they played protected CDs. The uninstall utility that SunnComm eventually developed to allow consumers to remove MediaMax from Windows PCs created a security vulnerability that exposed their computers to hacker intrusions, but this problem did not affect Macintosh computers.
Legitimate Complaints about Rootkits
I was very surprised by Jason Pontin’s comment in his “From the Editor” column regarding the Sony rootkit that “the complaints [from customers whose computers were infected] were much more heated than any damage to users’ computers warranted.”
The common early “repair” for the rootkit-damaged computers was to reinstall Windows. This is a hair-raising task even for those rare few of us who try to maintain proper and timely computer backups – a process that Microsoft’s security upgrades in turn frequently break! And the need to reinstall Windows often becomes the motivating factor for one to throw away one’s computer and start afresh. Worse, to those 99 percent of Windows users who do not maintain proper backups and who store their work at Microsoft’s default locations, reinstalling Windows may well mean losing months or years of their work. And all because customers purchased and listened to a Sony CD on their computer?!
James L. Adcock
One of the most interesting things about technology is the surprising ways that its various fields influence each other. I was reading the May/June 2006 issue, and a missed opportunity struck me as I finished reading the “Forward” piece on GE’s work to drive the hydrogen economy by delivering “a potentially inexpensive, mass-manufacturable version of the technology” for electrolysis of water (“Hydrogen on the Cheap”), and then flipped a few pages further to find a “Notebook” essay by Professor Schrock regarding his work on producing ammonia (“Nitrogen Fix”). He writes, “In the presence of protons and electrons in a nonaqueous medium, dinitrogen is reduced to ammonia with an efficiency in electrons of around 65 percent; the remaining electrons are used to make dihydrogen, which is in this context a wasteful and undesirable product.” I’m thinking the scientists at GE would find this of great interest; dihydrogen is exactly what they’re striving to make. While I’m sure there are difficulties (of, say, transportation and logistics) in using the waste stream from Professor Schrock’s work, an industrially viable process to make both ammonia and hydrogen sounds like a winner to me.
In the May/June 2006 article “Nanocrystal Displays,” Jonathan Steckel was identified as one of the key researchers behind the technology of the featured company, QD Vision. He is also one of the company’s founders.