Adobe Systems got a bit of a black eye when the company recently acknowledged it complied with a request from government treasury officials to add a feature to its flagship PhotoShop graphics production software that blocks users from making copies of major international currencies.
The news has caused a considerable stir among PhotoShop users who encountered the glitch when they tried to copy and manipulate currency. PhotoShop blocked the scan and displayed a warning that counterfeiting is illegal.
Taken by surprise, users have been complaining on Adobe Internet forums about the companys readiness to insert technological restraints in its product—even if it is for the nominally laudable purpose of discouraging counterfeiting.
Whats disturbing is not so much that Adobe cooperated with the government to block currency copying, but that it did so without acknowledging the fact upfront.
If Adobe truly believes that preventing counterfeiting is an important corporate duty, it should have had the courage of its convictions and said so in its product announcements and documentation.
Its hard to see any benefit from withholding this information. Clearly it didnt take users long to discover the problem. Why remain silent if its clear that users are going to be confused and perplexed by what would seem to be a bug in their new $649 copy of PhotoShop?
Company officials indicated they remained silent because they didnt want to make it any easier for counterfeiters to find a way to thwart the restriction. But how would disclosure alone make it easier to devise a countermeasure unless the company also provided details about how it was done? Undoubtedly counterfeiters, like any other kind of hacker, are trying to find a way around the Adobe restriction.
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Adobe PhotoShops anti-counterfeiting feature.
In counterfeiting as in war, the adversary is always looking for ways to thwart the latest defenses. Digital imaging and printing technologies have given counterfeiters access to the most sophisticated tools they have ever had for churning out bogus currency.
That is why the government is redesigning U.S. greenbacks for the second time in less than a decade after earlier designs had remained in print virtually unchanged for more than 40 years.
The government certainly has an interest in trying to persuade imaging technology designers to build into their products features that make at least a modest effort to make counterfeiters work more difficult.
No doubt Adobe felt some pressure to be a good corporate citizen by voluntarily cooperating with the request. Voluntary measures are generally greatly preferable to action mandated by federal legislation. Adobe certainly didnt want to be singled out as a company that allows criminals to use their product to debase the national currency.
But its disturbing to think about where Adobes markedly clumsy covert measures in this situation might lead in the future. With this precedent established, will the government pressure other software developers to add into their products hidden features that thwart illegal activities?
Worst of all would be if a software developer saw fit to take the ultimate step toward collaboration with Big Brother by inserting code into a product that covertly reported suspected illegal activities to law enforcement authorities. Such a move seems unthinkable. But technologically it is a small step and in the current atmosphere of national security paranoia, its perhaps less than far-fetched.
There are still compelling human rights issues that need to be considered before software is engineered to discourage criminal activity.
On the face of it, Adobes seemingly innocuous move to block counterfeiting also places a restraint on artistic and commercial expression. There are situations where graphic artists want to scan currency images without the intent to counterfeit it. Countless advertisements and articles have been published that include facsimiles and graphics elements of U.S. currency. Although there are federal laws against this, in all but the most rare examples the government doesnt choose to prosecute these cases.
If the software industry is going to increase its cooperation with government law enforcement interests, it should engage in a public discussion to establish what will be the ground rules. The public has a right to expect that the software packages they purchase arent larded with covert code that limits free use of all of the products features.
If such features have been built into a product for any reason, buyers have a right to know this so they can make a fully informed decision on whether to buy the software.
The industry must never take the step of building technology into their software that allows the government to monitor who is using a product and how they are using it.
Let me know what you think about the anti-counterfeiting feature in PhotoShop. Write to me at [email protected]
eWEEK.com Enterprise Applications Center Editor John Pallatto is a veteran journalist in the field of enterprise software and Internet technology.