As Microsoft Corp. prepares to release the beta version of its anticipated and controversial Rights Management Services, a small security company has been quietly working on technology that could trump Microsofts and make it easier for companies to control digital content.
Cryptography Research Inc. has developed a technology that associates security measures with each piece of content instead of using a generic protection scheme for all copies. The security measures are contained in code that runs on a virtual machine inside a playback device.
As the content is decrypted during playback, the virtual machine uses APIs in the playback device to determine whether or how the playback should proceed.
The architecture includes a digital watermarking function that would let content owners identify every legal copy of a given piece of content. If a legal copy is duplicated, the illegal version could be traced. Under this system, each playback device would have a unique set of keys for decrypting content.
The concept, which the company calls self-protecting digital content, grew from research to uncover a DRM (digital rights management) solution amenable to everyone in the debate over mandating copy protection.
"Both sides are missing the point. Mandating copy protection isnt realistic," said Paul Kocher, president of Cryptography Research, based here. "But [content owners] have a real problem. Piracy is illegal, and my job is to solve the security problem."
Kocher said the company has had discussions with Hollywood studios about licensing the technology.
Microsoft, meanwhile, is taking a more traditional approach with its upcoming RMS, which will be a part of Windows Server 2003. Designed mainly to give enterprises a way to protect intellectual property, RMS will let users assign persistent rights to a document. For example, a user could control whether the recipients of an e-mail are permitted to forward, print or reply to the message.
Thats just the tip of the iceberg for Microsofts content protection initiatives, according to officials. The heart of the effort is NGSCB (Next-Generation Secure Computing Base), which will have a series of advanced security features that, when coupled with RMS, will enable tighter DRM.
The system relies heavily on the use of encryption, with only trusted, digitally signed applications being allowed to run on NGSCB-enabled machines.
The NGSCB concept has drawn quite a bit of flak, and several well-known cryptographers criticized the plan during a panel discussion at the RSA Conference here last week.
Microsoft officials said that they are aware of the concern around NGSCB and RMS, but they believe users will embrace the technology as a way to improve security.
"The evolution of Palladium as it relates to rights management will be very important," said Dave Aucsmith, chief technology officer of the Security Business Unit at Microsoft, based in Redmond, Wash. "The long-term process of rights management as a security tool is something we have to continue to work on. Im hoping that we can reach a state where people dont attack software anymore."
Although that may be a fantasy, many of the security features in NGSCB are hardware-based, making them much more difficult to tamper with or attack than software. Encryption keys stored in hardware, as they will be in the Microsoft architecture, are considered more secure than those stored in software.
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