Technical State of the

By Mark Stamp  |  Posted 2003-05-01 Print this article Print

Art of DRM"> Unfortunately---or fortunately, depending on your perspective---the level of persistent protection provided by most DRM systems appears to lie somewhere between incredibly weak and really pathetic. DRM offerings from such high-tech luminaries as Microsoft (MS-DRM) and Adobe (eBooks) easily fell to attackers. In fact, there is a widely held belief that robust DRM can not be achieved via any software product. Ironically, this belief may have become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Based on the available evidence (i.e., broken DRM systems), the persistent protection methods employed to date have been extremely lame. Its difficult to know exactly what protection mechanisms are being employed by most unbroken DRM products, since companies are extremely tight-lipped when it comes to technical details. This secrecy is itself disturbing since one of the fundamental principles of security engineering (Kerckhoffs Principle) states that a system must be open to public scrutiny before it can be trusted. This basic principle is grossly violated by virtually all DRM purveyors today. As far as I am aware, MediaSnap, Inc., is the only DRM company that provides a reasonable technical overview of the security features in their product.

This dearth of technical information should be viewed with considerable suspicion. The likely explanation is that DRM products rely on "security by obscurity", which, in the eyes of most security experts, is equated with "no security at all."

Today, I would not entrust my valuable digital content (if I had any) to any well-known DRM product. Content providers obviously feel the same way, otherwise there would be far more non-pirated digital content available online. However, the current state of the DRM art is capable of providing useful protection in certain circumstances. One such example is proprietary corporate documents. In this scenario, a moderate level of persistent protection suffices since there are severe legal consequences for violators. But even here I see no reason to use a weak DRM system when it is possible to build a more robust---though not unbreakable---software-based system.

The hardware solution The wildcard in the DRM game is the Trusted Computing Group (formerly, the Trusted Computing Platform Alliance, or TCPA), which includes the likes of Intel and Microsoft, and aims to build DRM protection into future generations of hardware. Though not unbreakable, a DRM approach based on tamper-resistant hardware is likely to offer a level of protection far beyond anything possible from software-only systems. Of course, this is appealing to copyright holders in about the same measure that it is unpalatable to those with a passion for fair use (or free use). To learn more about the potential consequences of this approach, see Ross Andersons excellent TCPA/Palladium FAQ.

In any event, the Trusted Computing Group solution is not an option today. And even if comes to fruition, its not clear that consumers will accept it---recall the Pentium III serial number. But the progress of hardware-based DRM bears watching.

The Titanic principle In 1912, a first-class one-way (part-way, as it turned out) passage on the Titanic cost the modern equivalent of more than $50,000. While it lasts, a round-trip flight across the Atlantic on the Concorde costs less that $6,000 and cheaper first-class rates are available on less prestigious aircraft. Whereas a flight across the Atlantic takes a few hours, the Titanic would have taken about a week. If the Titanic were around today, it would obviously need to set its first-class charge to a small fraction of its 1912 rate in order to compete.

Today, record companies expect consumers to pay $14.95 for a CD that can be had for free online. The online version is of high quality and often more convenient to obtain---particularly for less popular items. Is it reasonable for record companies to demand Titanic rates for music in a technological era that includes the internet, peer-to-peer (P2P) networks and broadband? The record labels (and their lawyers) seem to think so.

If the Titanic were around today and charged $50,000 for a ticket, I doubt that many people would mourn its inevitable financial demise. Of course, if the Titanic were to drastically cut its rates and offer something that the airlines could not (a relaxing week at sea, say), it might survive, or even thrive.


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