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Music label drops CD anti-piracy security

Nov. 15, 2005

by VAN DARDEN, reporter

Spies are having a hard time these days.

Earlier this month, the CIA came under fire for acknowledging the existence of "black sites," secret torture prisons operating in other countries. Now even the music industry is being condemned for espionage.

The world's second-largest music label, Sony BMG Music Entertainment, pledged temporarily to halt the production of music CDs with anti-piracy technology security researchers have described as "spyware," saying it is difficult to remove, can leave computers open to hackers and transmits without warning details about what music is playing. Sony executives have rejected the description of their technology as spyware.

"We also intend to re-examine all aspects of our content protection initiative to be sure that it continues to meet our goals of security and ease of consumer use," the company said in a statement.

Sony BMG uses XCP (eXtended Copy Protection) technology -- developed by First 4 Internet, a United Kingdom-based information security firm -- to prevent customers from making more than a few copies of the CD. The software also prevents individuals from loading the CD's music onto Apple Computer's iPods.

However, the software sparked a class- action lawsuit against Sony last week, claiming Sony BMG did not inform customers that it installs programs directly into the operational system files of their computers.

Stephen Cortez, a San Antonio senior, said the software allows computer hackers to exploit this "hidden" technology and infiltrate an individual's computer by hiding behind the Sony-provided software.

"I always have a problem with a company that installs software that allows the consumer to be exploited," said Christopher Hansen, assistant professor of communication studies. "I think consumers will ultimately reject a company that betrays their trust."

Apple Macintosh computers or other commercial CD and DVD players are not susceptible.

Sony BMG has made available a software patch that removes the technology's cloaking component. It also made more broadly available instructions on how to remove the software permanently.

Customers who remove the software are unable to listen to the music CD on their computer.

"I don't foresee any technology that will totally stop piracy," said Dr. Greg Hamerly, assistant professor of computer science. "But I do understand that these companies want to protect their investments."

Dallas senior Ramsey Pool said he thinks it's the consumer's responsibility to be aware of a company's copyright policy.

"In the licensing agreement, the language is explicit enough to remove any doubt as to what they're going to do. However, what Sony did deserve is censure, and they'll end up paying for it," he said. A senior Homeland Security official cautioned entertainment companies against discouraging piracy in ways that also make computers vulnerable.

Stewart Baker, assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Homeland Security, did not cite Sony by name in his remarks Thursday but described industry efforts to install hidden files on consumers' computers.

"It's very important to remember that it's your intellectual property, it's not your computer," Baker said at a trade conference on piracy.

"In the pursuit of protection of intellectual property, it's important not to defeat or undermine the security measures that people need to adopt in these days," he said.

According to a news release on the Sony BMG Web site, the company stands by content protection technology as a tool to protect their intellectual property rights and those of their artists.

Sony BMG is home to a diverse array of artists, including Barbra Streisand, Franz Ferdinand and System of a Down.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.