Yesterday two lawsuits were filed against Sony, by the Texas Attorney General and the EFF. The Texas suit claims that Sony’s XCP technology violates the state’s spyware law. The EFF suit claims that two Sony technologies, XCP and MediaMax, both violate various state laws.
One interesting aspect of the EFF suit is its emphasis on MediaMax. Most of the other lawsuits have focused on Sony’s other copy protection technology, XCP. The EFF suit does talk about XCP, but only after getting through with MediaMax. Emphasizing MediaMax seems like a smart move – while Sony has issued an apology of sorts for XCP and has recalled XCP discs, the company is still stonewalling on MediaMax, even though MediaMax raises issues almost as serious as XCP.
As Alex wrote last week, MediaMax is spyware: it installs software without notice or consent; it phones home and sends back information without notice or consent; and it either doesn’t offer an uninstaller or makes the uninstaller difficult to get and use. MediaMax lacks the rootkit-like feature of XCP, but otherwise MediaMax shares all of the problems of XCP, including serious security problems with the uninstaller (mitigated by the difficulty of getting the uninstaller; see above).
But even if all these problems are fixed, the MediaMax software will still erode security, for reasons stemming from the basic design of the software.
For example, MediaMax requires administrator privileges in order to listen to a CD. You read that right: if you want to listen to a MediaMax CD, you must be logged in with enough privileges to manipulate any part of the system. The best practice is to log in to an ordinary (non-administrator) account, except when you need to do system maintenance. But with MediaMax, you must log in to a privileged account or you can’t listen to your CD. This is unnecessary and dangerous.
Some of the security risk of MediaMax comes from the fact that users are locked into the MediaMax music player application. The player app evades the measures designed to block access to the music; and of course the app can’t play non-MediaMax discs, so the user will have to use multiple music players. Having this extra code on the system, and having to run it, increases security risk. (And don’t tell me that music players don’t have security bugs – we saw two serious security security bugs in Sony music software last week.) Worse yet, if a security problem crops up in the MediaMax player app, the user can’t just switch to another player app. More code, plus less choice, equals more security risk.
Worse yet, one component of MediaMax, a system service called sbcphid, is loaded into memory and ready to run at all times, even when there is no disc in the CD drive and no music is being played. And it runs as a kernel process, meaning that it has access to all aspects of the system. This is another component that can only add to security risk; and again the user has no choice.
It’s important to recognize that these problems are caused not by any flaws in SunnComm and Sony’s execution of their copy protection plan, but from the nature of the plan itself. If you want to try to stop music copying on a PC, you’re going to have to resort to these kinds of methods. You’re going to have to force users to use extra software that they don’t want. You’re going to have to invoke administrator privileges more often. You’re going to have to keep more software loaded and running. You’re going to have to erode users’ ability to monitor, control, and secure their systems. Once you set off down the road of copy protection, this is where you’re going to end up.