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June 9, 2006

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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE:

 

House Panel OKs Digital Licensing Bill
CNet (06/08/06) Broache, Anne

A House panel has approved a measure introduced by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) to bring up to date copyright law that established a complex system of "mechanical royalties" for the right to reproduce and distribute music, deemed antiquated in the digital age. The new bill creates a "blanket licensing" system in which a one-stop shop overseen by the U.S. Copyright Office would be established for license approval. Currently, companies wishing to sell music must negotiate separate agreements for each song. Supporters hail the measure as a means to facilitate legal music download service, which will eventually drive down prices and provide more selection for consumers. "We now have the ability to give legal services the tools to compete with and hopefully drive illegal music services out of business," said Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), a co-sponsor of the measure. The Recording Industry Association of America, the Digital Media Association, and the National Music Publishers Association voiced their support for the bill in a joint statement but said it still needed to be ironed out. Opponents of the measure fear it could eventually choke consumer protections for material recorded for noncommercial purposes and lead to duplicative fees for the "performance" of material and reproduction or distribution of it, which now require separate licensing agreements. They argue that the bill's intent could be shifted to other media and adversely impact such technologies as TiVo.
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Pentagon Sets Its Sights on Social Networking Websites
New Scientist (06/10/06) Marks, Paul

The NSA is funding research into technologies that could extract meaning from the mountains of personal data posted on social networking Web sites. The NSA research could bring the vision of the Semantic Web closer to reality, as it could combine information from social networking sites with other data, such as banking, retail, and property records to create comprehensive profiles of individual users. The focus on social networking sites comes as Americans are still reeling from the revelation that the NSA has been collecting phone call records since shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The NSA plans to conduct similar surveillance of the Web, piecing together a composite picture of individuals by analyzing their contact networks. The Semantic Web will make the comparison of data in disparate formats possible thanks to the common structure known as the Resource Development Framework (RDF). "RDF turns the Web into a kind of universal spreadsheet that is readable by computers as well as people," said David de Roure, an advisor to the W3C. Every piece of numerical data would have its own tag, and different references to the same concept would link to each other. While the Semantic Web is expected to transform Internet search, it will also make it much easier to snoop into people's private lives. Nevertheless, the organization known as the Advanced Research Development Activity, charged with disbursing NSA funds, has taken an active interest in harvesting social networking data to make meaningful connections between people.
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Thomas Sterling Speaks to the Future of HPC
HPC Wire (06/09/06) Vol. 15, No. 23,Lazou, Christopher

In a recent interview, Louisiana State University computer science professor Thomas Sterling shared his thoughts on the challenges currently facing the high-performance computing environment. In his research, Sterling is exploring the challenges of balancing efficiency, power, reliability, and scalability. Sterling describes the dire need for incorporating latency hiding features in the programming infrastructure. He is developing a new computing model called ParalleX that he hopes will lead to a programming methodology capable of operating on traditional architectures, leading to improvements in scalability and hiding latency. While federal funding for HPC research is scarce, Sterling is hopeful that government agencies will soon begin to see the potential of the field. Sterling believes that university research already under way will extend the lifespan of silicon as the material that serves as the basis for computing and take it down close to the nano-scale, though the studies will require ongoing federal funding. The most likely successor to silicon will be a new material that actually incorporates some silicon. While some scientists are conducting intriguing research in optical computing, Sterling believes that none of the technologies is close to making optical logic and memory a viable alternative to conventional designs. Sterling warns of the potential for creating impossibly complex architectures as companies continue to explore heterogeneous systems, adding components such as FPGAs and processors-in-memory. Most PCs are not programmed with scalability in mind, Sterling says, and they are not equipped to deal with problems such as latency hiding, parallel overheads, and resource contention. Sterling believes that the language required to address these issues has yet to be written.
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Specter Offers Compromise on NSA Surveillance
Washington Post (06/09/06) P. A4; Pincus, Walter

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) has modified his position on the Bush administration's surveillance programs, proposing legislation that would make the procurement of a warrant from a federal court optional. Specter's move backs away from his earlier stance that the NSA's warrantless surveillance program targeting phone calls and emails of suspected terrorists and associates should be subordinate to the secret court mandated by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). The proposal states that it cannot "be construed to limit the constitutional authority of the President to gather foreign intelligence information or monitor the activities and communications of any person reasonably believed to be associated with a foreign enemy of the United States." The Bush administration has claimed that its surveillance programs have constitutional authority in their own right, arguing that there is no need for additional legislation. Another provision in Specter's bill would grant immunity to anyone who gave the order for warrantless surveillance under presidential authority. Also, the 29 cases contesting the legality of the NSA program pending in federal courts would be consolidated into a single suit that would ultimately be reviewable by the Supreme Court. Until this point, Specter had been unsuccessful in his attempts to secure an opinion from the administration on a constitutional review of the NSA surveillance program. "I think he [Vice President Dick Cheney] is serious about trying to work something out," Specter said. "For the first time, he said they are willing to consider legislation." Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) has said that she cannot support a bill that would authorize government eavesdropping without a court order, and has introduced her own legislation that would only permit government surveillance under the auspices of FISA.
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43rd Design Automation Conference Features Leading-Edge Theme on Multimedia, Entertainment and Gaming
Business Wire (06/06/06)

Multimedia, entertainment, and games (MEGa) will be the subject of a number of demonstrations during the 43rd Design Automation Conference (DAC), which is set to take place July 24-28, 2006, in San Francisco. The best papers on multimedia from the International Solid-State Circuits Conference will be featured in a special session at the conference, and will include presentations from Renasas/DoCoMo, MediaTek, National Chiao-Tung University, and Samsung. An invited session on CAD challenges in multimedia design and a panel on design challenges for next-generation MEGa platforms serve as complementary events. "There are rapid advancements in home networking, digital-mobile TV, mobile-digital convergence, and many other consumer-centric design areas," says Andrew Kahng, DAC New Initiatives Chair. "Our 2006 MEGa theme is going to offer a great chance for the DAC audience to hear about the roadmap for applications, design challenges, and CAD challenges." ACM's Special Interest Group on Design Automation (ACM/SIGDA), the Circuits and Systems Society and Computer Aided Network Design Technical Committee of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE/CASS/CANDE), and the Electronic Design Automation Consortium (EDA Consortium) are sponsoring the conference. For more information about DAC, or to register, visit http://www.dac.com/43rd/index.html.
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IMSC Team Sees Way to Improve Game Testing by Analyzing User "Immersadata"
USC Viterbi School of Engineering (06/06/06)

Engineers at the University of Southern California have developed a tool to capture and analyze the experience of a video game player to look for flaws and weak spots in the game, and it could soon measure the player's emotional involvement. Though essential to creating new games, user testing is still a subjective and unstructured process. Normally, "game companies hire teenagers, and turn them loose trying to find flaws and gaps in the game," said Tim Marsh, a post-doctoral researcher at USC. Marsh believes that his method, which analyzes "immersadata," is more scientific and systematic. Immersadata refers to the machine-readable log of commands that computers receive from controls such as keyboards and joysticks measured alongside video of the player playing the game. The Immersadata AnalySIS tool, or ISIS, indexes relevant data from the video, organizing it into six categories: activity completion points, task completion points, break points, wandering points, critical events, and navigation errors. Developers could identify patterns where the same errors or design flaws, such as running into a wall (a navigation error) or a long gap in the action (a break point), occur in the experiences of multiple players. The system does a good job of identifying the problems it is programmed to search for, and Marsh and his colleagues are already working on enhancements to the system, such as an application that could replay the game from the player's point of view. Marsh is also exploring ways to use immersadata to capture the emotional elements of the user's experience.
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Making Virtual Worlds More Lifelike
CNet (06/08/06) Terdiman, Daniel

Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) researchers have been studying the social aspects of massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) with an eye toward developing more realistic avatars and character interactions. The researchers say the technology could be used by video game developers to make their games more appealing, though they note that the video game industry tends to favor content over the quality of the experience. "When faced with the decision, 'Do I put in another dungeon or do I improve the experience for (groups of players)?'" said PARC's Nicolas Ducheneaut, developers will often say '"I'll put in another dungeon.' I think that's incredibly shortsighted." The team believes that MMOs could be a valuable platform for communication and socialization, as well as gaming. They realize that retooling the structure of games to include a greater social dimension could be costly and time consuming, but they feel that the commercial potential is worth it. When looking at a cantina in "Star Wars Galaxies," a place resembling a bar where players come to get healed, the researchers found that players were not using the space to socialize. The PARC team's Bob Moore believes that in designing the cantina, the developers did not bother to include the small touches that would make it a popular gathering spot. Chris Kramer of Sony Online Entertainment, which publishes "Star Wars Galaxies," counters that the publisher's community relations team spends a great deal of time soliciting feedback from players. The researchers suggest that publishers might be out of touch with who their paying customers are, and that many do a poor job of analyzing the data that they do collect. Moore believes that the main problem with designing games conducive to socialization is an issue of "interactional realism," or the behavior and mannerisms of 3D avatars, and that to effectively simulate real life requires skills in fields such as sociology, politics, and urban planning.
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Getting Computer Grids to Talk to Each Other
IST Results (06/08/06)

While grid computing has been one of the most significant developments in the computer industry, its success has led to the creation of numerous systems hamstrung by their inability to communicate with each other. The IST-funded UniGrids project set out to develop an interoperability layer to overcome that incompatibility, a problem exacerbated by the varying strengths of operating systems such as Globus and UNICORE. The UniGrids Atomic Services interoperability function allows multiple grid systems to exchange data and facilitates the creation of new grid applications independent of the core grid infrastructure. The UniGrids project also built out the UNICORE system, making it compatible with the Open Grid Services Architecture standards. The UniGrids developers also coordinated with the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards, the Global Grid Forum, and other major standards organizations to help develop the emerging standards for grid systems. To capitalize on the economic potential of grid computing, the project is also developing brokering software to allow commercial groups to rent vast computing resources when necessary. The scientific community will be the principal beneficiary of the project, though. "Scientists have told us that our work now allows them to do things they couldn't do before. Where before they might be able to study the genes of a fruit fly, now they can do genetic studies on humans," said Daniel Mallmann, coordinator of the UniGrids project.
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Robot Device Mimics Human Touch
BBC News (06/08/06) Morelle, Rebecca

U.S. researchers have developed a tactile sensor that feels with the same level of sensitivity as a human finger, potentially leading to improvements in minimally invasive surgical procedures. "If you look at the current status of these tactile sensors, the frustration has been that the resolution of all these devices is in the range of millimeters," said University of Nebraska engineer Ravi Saraf. "Whereas the resolution of a human fingertip is about 40 microns, about half the diameter of a human hair, and this has affected the performance of these devices." By placing electrodes at the top and bottom of a thin film made from layers of semiconducting nanoparticles and metal, the researchers enacted the effect known as electroluminescence, where current changes in the film and light is emitted when the layers of particles are squeezed together. "The beautiful thing is that we have managed to make the device in such a way that the amount of current change, or light, that you get out is exactly proportional to the stress that you apply," Saraf said. The film, in addition to matching the sensitivity of the human finger, is flexible enough to be used repeatedly without damaging it. Saraf hopes that the technology could enable surgeons to conduct exploratory surgeries and determine the condition of human tissue without physically touching it. Saraf next hopes to develop a device capable of detecting temperature changes to emulate human sensations even more closely.
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Robo Pups Vie to Be Top Dog
Age (Australia) (06/08/06) Hearn, Louisa

RoboCup is scheduled to kick off in Germany on June 14, and Australia will be represented by teams from UNSW, University of Newcastle, and Griffith University, who will join 21 other teams from around the world in pitting their robotic dogs against one another in a game of soccer. Each year, participants tweak software to give their Sony AIBO robotic dogs an advantage in wireless communication and maneuverability during matches, which are completely independent of any human control. Ahead of the 2000 RoboCup, UNSW changed the leg angles of AIBO, giving its robotic dogs a speed advantage as its team claimed the title that year. Brad Hall, development manager for the UNSW computing department, says the limitations of available hardware often present the biggest challenges for the participants. "Robots only have one camera and thus no depth perception so finding the ball and the goal and the other robots 30 times per second is very challenging," says Hall, manager of the UNSW Runswift team. "It involves two-point triangulation, a lot of guestimation, and a lot of sanity checks." There are some concerns about the future of the Four-Legged League because of Sony's decision to discontinue the AIBO this year in an effort to focus more on business robotics.
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The Future of the IT Organization: Software Trends for the 21st Century
Computer Weekly (06/07/06) Richards, Justin

Processors will have multiple CPUs in the years to come because of the power demands of modern cache sizes, according to Andrew Herbert, managing director of Microsoft Research in Cambridge. "A large cache on a single chip is the only way to improve performance when Moore's Law runs out," Herbert said during a lecture organized by the Royal Signals Institution and the British Computer Society in which he discussed his vision of software practices in the future. Although software is no longer limited by hardware, Herbert said the quality of new code and help to maintain old code need to be improved. In addition to improvements in processor power, increased memory capacity and developments in model checking and theorem proving will allow for more formal methods. Herbert believes everyone will carry around a terabyte of storage space by the time he retires, and that research on digital tapestries could lead to new ways of organizing data, including videos and images. "We can envisage a future in which we combine new display formats with machine perception techniques that allow input via handwriting, gesture, touch, speech, or placement of physical objects to create interactive surfaces," he said of the possibility of combining microelectronics-based screen and projection technologies with wireless networking. Artificial intelligence will gradually lose ground to "intelligent" applications, he added.
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Hacktivists Mount Counter-Offensive to Internet Censorship
IT World Canada (06/08/06) Arellano, Nestor E.

A group of socially conscious hackers, or "hacktivists," from the University of Toronto has developed software to combat Internet censorship in countries with repressive governments. The software, called Psiphon and developed at the UT Citizen Lab, allows a third-party computer to function as a proxy, enabling Internet users to view restricted content. The Citizen Lab is currently focused on China and other countries that impose censorship, though it is not ignoring Western countries. "Headlines like the Great Firewall of China have spotlighted censorship in that country and others such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, but filtering activities in Western states or so-called democratic countries frequently fly under the radar," said Ron Diebert, head of the Citizen Lab. The researchers must act like covert agents in their work as they coordinate with dissidents in repressive countries where discovery is a constant danger. "Identities and locations are kept secret and information is compartmentalized, just as any spy agency would do because in most instances lives are at stake," Diebert said. China maintains an elaborate systems of routers and gateways, using advanced technology to control its citizens' Internet activity. Internet activists in nonrestrictive countries install Psiphon on their computers and create a list of trusted users in repressed countries who can use the computer's IP address to access banned Web sites without being detected. Psiphon encrypts data and travels on a secure network typically used by financial institutions.
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Flesh and Machines
Weekly Dig (06/06/06)

When artificial intelligence failed to realize the lofty visions heralded by its pioneers in the 1950s and 60s, the discipline entered a long cooling period when funding dried up and many people lost interest. Though the boom years of the 1990s breathed new life into the fledgling industry, Rodney Brooks, director of MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, had been able to thrive in the lean years by recasting the objectives of artificial intelligence as a whole. Brooks realized that it was fruitless to try to simulate human behavior in a machine, and instead set out to model organisms such as amoebae and insects. Brooks, who co-founded iRobot, created devices that took their cues from actual perceptions of the real world instead of theories, and the robots began to function. In the mid 1990s, the Mars Sojourner robot autonomously explored the planet's surface according to its own self-generated agenda. Brooks envisions the eventual convergence of robotics and biotechnology, beginning with corrective devices for the disabled. Brooks has also conceived of an interface that links human neurons with the Internet, though he eschews the formulaic Hollywood notion of robots becoming so powerful that they can dominate and enslave humans. For the foreseeable future, Brooks believes that robotics will be confined to helper robots that perform everyday tasks. He notes that manual labor has not experienced a revolution similar to the effect that the introduction of the PC had on knowledge workers 20 to 30 years ago, when many repetitive and time-consuming tasks were automated. Developments in graphical user interfaces have almost made that revolution a reality, Brooks says, adding that prices just need to drop for robots to be deployed on a much greater scale throughout industry.
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Nation's Largest Computing Grid Announces Inaugural Conference
AScribe Newswire (06/06/06)

Scientists and researchers from across the country will present some of the work being done on the largest computer grid in the United States during the national TeraGrid conference in Indianapolis June 12-15. The TeraGrid takes advantage of the computing power and resources of the San Diego Supercomputer Center, Texas Advanced Computing Center, University of Chicago-Argonne National Laboratory, National Center for Supercomputing Applications, Purdue University, Indiana University, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center. The information technology resources available to researchers includes more than 100 teraflops of computing, which is comparable to the computing capability of 28,000 desktop computers. "In addition to providing some of the most powerful computing resources in the world and the high-speed networking to make them accessible, the TeraGrid is working to make existing data collections easily accessible online to serve entire research communities," says Scott McCaulay, conference program co-chair and TeraGrid site leader at Indiana University. TeraGrid has recently been used to simulate a 7.7 magnitude earthquake along the San Andreas Fault, forecast thunderstorms within 20 miles and within 30 minutes of when they occur, create 3D animated visualizations of blood flowing through arteries, and to develop computer models for the spread of avian influenza.
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Domain Name Price Hikes Come Under Fire
CNet (06/07/06) McCullagh, Declan; Broache, Anne

VeriSign received ICANN's blessing to hike fees on .com domains by 7 percent yearly in March, a move that has provoked a backlash in Congress. Members of the House Small Business Committee described the price hikes as unreasonable at a Wednesday hearing, and ICANN's decision must be passed by the Commerce Department before it can go into effect. Domain registrars that sell .com names have been lobbying fervently against the VeriSign deal because it entails higher prices for them. "I have no objection to VeriSign's continuing to run the .com registry," said Network Solutions CEO W.G. Mitchell at the hearing. "What I do have is an objection to it being done in a manner that gives a perpetual monopoly to a company with unregulated price increases." Mitchell says VeriSign could potentially reap $1.3 billion in new revenue through the price hikes, and more than 50 percent of that amount would come from 10.5 million small businesses that use the Internet; he added that the sanction of rate hikes is not in keeping with the deal reached with VeriSign last year over the .net registry, which lowered the domain name base price. Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) has already asked the Bush administration to scrutinize the proposal because it could have "serious anti-competitive implications," and last month Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) requested an investigation by the Justice Department. ICANN and VeriSign have supported the deal, citing the issue of Internet security, while ICANN general counsel John Jeffrey said the agreed-upon percentage gains mean that .com fees would increase just $1.86 in the next six years. New laws must be enacted for Congress to block the approval of the settlement, but the White House could attempt to negotiate new concessions with just the threat of congressional action looming.
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Data Grab
InformationWeek (06/05/06)No. 1092, P. 23; Greenemeier, Larry; Claburn, Thomas; Hoover, J. Nicholas

As the federal government requests or demands more customer information from businesses, ostensibly to battle terrorists and criminals, people are becoming increasingly worried that the personally identifiable data contained in such information could be exploited and abused. In addition to the ethical quandary, many companies face additional costs, such as money and manpower, in order to retain data for longer periods of time in case it is called for in federal investigations. The government makes requests for data via subpoenas or "national security letters," which are used liberally, according to a 2005 Washington Post article. These requests can entail significant costs for recipients, although the Justice Department does not keep an account of those costs. Sometimes companies will refuse to comply with government data requests, as Google did. The company's refusal led to a court ruling that reduced the amount of data Google had to share with Justice, and illustrated "that neither the government nor anyone else has carte blanche when demanding data from Internet customer," wrote Google associate general counsel Nicole Wong. There are fears that the business and Internet data being collected by government agencies will be fed into a database from which citizen profiles can be extracted. Another source of concern is skepticism that the government can effectively secure the data it collects.
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On the Right Track
New Scientist (06/03/06) Vol. 190, No. 2554, P. 32; Kleiner, Kurt

A new search engine model is required to handle the massive, ever-growing volumes of digital music tracks online, and universities and companies are working on software that can acoustically analyze any music it hears. This ability could be enabled through algorithms that can render a signal as a blend of sine waves with distinct frequencies and amplitudes, and that can study note patterns to determine attributes of melody, tempo, and harmony in order to assign genre to a piece as well as facilitate comparison of different tracks and characteristic-based groupings. MusicIP's MusicIP Mixer software can scan the music in a user's personal library and then organize playlists based on any song the user cares to select, making recommendations for similar-sounding tracks; the program's performance partly rides on a database of 17 million songs that it refers to, according to MusicIP CEO Matthew Dunn. Another company, Pandora, wants to make a search engine capable of finding tracks a listener wishes to hear by classifying songs according to a vaster range of parameters. "The best way to describe it is a musical description, not someone's opinion about how good a song is," explains Pandora founder Tim Westergren. Attributes are assigned to each song by trained musicians, since computers cannot analyze music with the sophistication of the human ear. The Semantic Interaction with Music Audio Contents (SIMAC) project aims to enable computers to more effectively pick out complex characteristics such as style, tempo, and rhythm, and to assess how combinations of chords or notes generate harmonies through a mix of human cognition studies, music analysis, and artificial intelligence.
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Netcentric in a Snap
Government Executive (06/01/06) Vol. 38, No. 9, P. 48; Perera, David

The Pentagon envisions a network-centric battlefield of the future where information awareness is used to keep forces coordinated and organized in the face of rapidly shifting circumstances, environments, and foes. Military planning, training, equipment, technology, and principles must adapt to this new paradigm, while backers of the service-oriented architecture (SOA) software development framework say the code underlying netcentricity must become equally flexible. "We believe this is the best way, and quite frankly, the only way going forward, in terms of addressing the complexity we're dealing with," explained Rob Vietmeyer of the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) at a March industry conference. "The models that we used in the past for systems development aren't going to cut it." Complex processes can be broken down into smaller, simpler, and modular components with SOA software, eliminating the need for specially-tailored middleware to function as an intermediary between incompatible programs. Thus, SOA allows data to migrate horizontally across networks, going to people who need it faster and enabling the fast construction of new data applications in response to changing battlefield conditions. Key to employing SOA interoperability is the military's willingness to cede authority for data collection, and RABA Technologies chief scientist John Reel says the interdependability this implies is a tough challenge in life-or-death situations. Other obstacles to battlefield netcentricity via SOA include the difficulty in articulating the development framework's advantages to non-technical people, whose support is often critical for investment.
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Inside the Spyware Scandal
Technology Review (06/06) Vol. 109, No. 2, P. 48; Roush, Wade

Sony BMG's inclusion of a "rootkit" on their compact discs enabled the company to spy on its customers while giving hackers an exploit through which they could hijack people's computers, and has become symbolic of the increasing distrust media companies seem to be exhibiting toward consumers. This distrust threatens to strangle business as consumers view these companies with equal suspicion. Assessment of the rootkit the record company utilized to conceal copy protection software on CDs--to thwart its location and removal--showed that it could mask other files, such as worms and Trojans, just as easily. Playing the CD on the computer allowed such files to be installed on the computer in secret; and indeed, hackers devised malware to exploit the Sony BMG rootkit shortly after its existence was publicized. The scandal this revelation ignited has re-opened the debate on how consumers should be permitted to use copyrighted digital information, and just how far copyright holders should be allowed to go to protect their intellectual property from unauthorized duplication. "When you build computer systems where you're not protecting the user, but something from the user, you have very bad security," argues Counterpane Internet Security CTO Bruce Schneier. Princeton University computer scientist J. Alex Halderman alleges that the rootkit's designers must have known that malware writers were familiar with the masking technique they were using. Computer security professionals say the debacle points to the need for digital rights management (DRM) software that is transparent and computer friendly, respectful of users' privacy and security, user serviceable, and above all, flexible.
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