June 29, 2022

Archives for November 2005

Sony, First4 Knew About Rootkit Issue in Advance

Security vendor F-Secure contacted SonyBMG and First4Internet about the companies’ rootkit software on October 4 – about four weeks before the issue became public – according to a Business Week story by Steve Hamm.

Here’s the key part of the article’s chronology:

Nevertheless, Sony BMG asked First4Internet to investigate. Both Sony BMG and F-Secure say that it was on Oct. 17 that F-Secure first spelled out the full scope of the problem to Sony. The security company’s report on the matter, sent that day to First4Internet and Sony BMG, confirmed there was a rootkit in XCP and warned that it made it possible for hackers to hide viruses and protect them from antivirus software products. F-Secure referred to XCP as a “major security risk,” according to a copy of the e-mail supplied to BusinessWeek Online by F-Secure.

Sony BMG says it asked the two software companies to investigate and find a solution to the problem. “From the moment our people learned that F-Secure had identified a potential problem we contacted our vendor and in no uncertain terms told them you have to get with F-Secure and find out what needs to be done about it,” says Daniel Mandil, Sony BMG’s general counsel.

BOGGED DOWN. What happened next is in dispute. F-Secure had a conference call with executives of First4Internet on Oct. 20. It says First4Internet argued that there was no real problem because only a few people knew of the vulnerability XCP created, and said an update of the XCP software, due out early next year, would fix the problem on all future CDs.

At first glance, this looks like a standard story about disclosure of a security vulnerability: vendor ships insecure product; researchers report flaw privately; vendor drags feet; researchers report flaw publicly; problem fixed right away. The story features the classic vendor error of seeing insecurity as a public relations problem rather than a customer safety issue: “there was no real problem because only a few people knew of the vulnerability”.

But if we read this as just another vulnerability disclosure, we’re missing an important part of the story. In the usual case, the security vulnerability exists by mistake – the vendor doesn’t know the vulnerability exists until somebody points it out. Here, the rootkit-like functionality was not a mistake but a deliberate design decision by the vendor.

Which suggests the question of what exactly F-Secure was disclosing to Sony and First4Internet, or more precisely what it was disclosing that they didn’t already know. They must have known about the rootkit already – it was a design decision they had made – and if they had any kind of clue they would have known that users would hate having a rootkit on their machines, especially one that provided an obvious hiding place for other malware. As far as I can see, the only new information F-Secure would have disclosed was that F-Secure planned to treat the program as malware.

It’s interesting, too, that other makers of anti-malware tools didn’t seem to notice the problem until Mark Russinovich’s public disclosure. As of mid-September, this malware had been on the market for months and presumably had been installed on hundreds of thousands of computers, but still none of the anti-malware vendors had discovered it. (According to the Business Week article, F-Secure didn’t discover the malware itself, but learned of it on Sept. 30 from John Guarino, a computer technician in New York who had discovered it on several clients’ computers.) It’s not a good sign that all of the major anti-malware vendors missed it for so long.

Finally, we have to consider the possibility that Sony and First4Internet understood the significance of the rootkit, but simply felt that copy protection trumped users’ security. First4Internet probably held that view – otherwise it’s hard to explain their design decision to deploy rootkit functionality – and Sony may well have held it too. We know already that entertainment companies want to redesign our computers in the hope (which is ultimately futile) of stopping copying. From there, it’s not so large a step to decide that users’ security simply must be sacrificed on the altar of copy protection.

What did SonyBMG know, and when did it know it? We’ll find out more as the lawsuits proceed.

MediaMax Permanently Installs and Runs Unwanted Software, Even If User Declines EULA

In an earlier post I described how MediaMax, a CD DRM system used by Sony-BMG and other record labels, behaves like spyware. (MediaMax is not the same as XCP, the technology that Sony-BMG has recalled; Sony-BMG is still shipping MediaMax discs.) MediaMax phones home whenever you play a protected CD, automatically installs over 12 MB of software before even displaying an End User License Agreement, and fails to include an uninstaller.

Part of the software that MediaMax installs is a driver meant to interfere with ripping and copying from protected discs. I had believed that MediaMax didn’t permanently activate this driver—set it to run whenever the computer starts—unless the user accepted the license agreement. As it turns out, this belief was wrong, and things are even worse that I had thought.

In the comments to our last MediaMax story, reader free980211 pointed out that the driver sometimes becomes permanently activated if the same protected CD is used more than once, even if the user never agrees to the EULA. This wasn’t apparent from my earlier tests because they were conducted under tightly controlled conditions, with each trial beginning from a fresh Windows installation and involving only carefully scripted operations. I’ve performed further tests and can now confirm that MediaMax is permanently activated in several common situations in spite of explicitly withheld consent.

When this happens depends on what version of MediaMax is being used. An older version, called CD-3, was introduced in 2003 and is present on albums released as recently as this summer. There is also a newer version, MediaMax MM-5, which has been shipping for a little over a year. You can tell which version is on a CD by examining the files in the disc’s root directory. Albums protected by MediaMax CD-3 contain a file called LAUNCHCD.EXE, while MM-5 albums include a file named PlayDisc.exe.

When you insert a CD containing either version of MediaMax, an installer program automatically starts (unless you have disabled the Windows autorun feature). This installer places the copy protection driver and other files on the hard disk, and then presents a license agreement, which you are asked to accept or decline. In the following scenarios the driver may become permanently activated even if you always decline the agreement:

  • You insert a CD-3 album, then later insert an MM-5 album
  • You insert an MM-5 album, then later insert a CD-3 album
  • You insert an MM-5 album, reboot, then later insert the same album or another MM-5 album

These steps don’t have to take place all at once. They can happen over a period of weeks or months.

This is bad news for people who like to play CDs in their computers. Many users are unaware that their CDs contain MediaMax until the license agreement appears on their screens, but by this time it may be too late to stop the driver from being permanently activated. Even if users are careful to decline the EULA every time, the circumstances when the software becomes active anyway are common enough to be practically inevitable.

This may be an annoyance to music fans—unless you disable the driver, you’ll have a hard time playing any MediaMax-protected titles, let alone copying them to your iPod—but it’s also a security risk, since the driver is loaded as part of the Windows kernel and has the ability to control virtually any aspect of the computer’s operation. We don’t know whether the MediaMax driver contains any vulnerability that can be exploited to do further damage, but the way it is installed creates a dangerous precedent.

Is this behavior illegal? It should be. Installation of system level software where the user has explicitly denied permission raises serious security concerns and is wrong.

What Does MediaMax Accomplish?

I wrote yesterday about the security risks imposed by the SunnComm MediaMax copy protection technology that ships on some Sony CDs. (This is not to be confused with the XCP technology that Sony recalled.) MediaMax advocates may argue that it’s okay to impose these security risks on users, because MediaMax effectively prevents copying of music. Which raises an obvious question: How effective is MediaMax, really, in stopping copying?

The answer: Not very.

MediaMax reportedly can be defeated by the well-known trick of drawing a circle around the outer edge of the CD with a felt-tip pen, or covering the outer edge with tape.

MediaMax can be defeated by the well-known trick of holding down the Shift key while inserting the CD.

MediaMax can be defeated by the well-known trick of rebooting the computer after inserting the CD.

(These first three attacks don’t work if MediaMax is installed on the user’s computer. But MediaMax has released an uninstaller than anyone can use.)

MediaMax can be defeated by the well-known trick of not using a Windows PC. (Amusingly, Mac users are allowed to install MediaMax if they want to. To do this, the user has to browse the CD and double-click a MediaMax installer icon which might as well be labeled “Click here to make this CD less useful.” Users who are smart enough not to do this can access the music normally.)

MediaMax can be defeated by telling Sony you want to move the music into iTunes or an iPod. They will then send you instructions for defeating MediaMax by making an unprotected copy of the CD.

All this, and I haven’t even started talking about the details of how the MediaMax technology works and any detailed flaws in its operation.

The bottom line: MediaMax makes your computer less secure and your music less available for lawful use, while achieving very little against pirates.