Descrambling the hard drive copy-protection scheme

By Tom Mainelli, InfoWorld |  Storage

HOLLYWOOD WANTS A piece of your hard drive.

A proposal now under consideration by a technology standards organization lays the groundwork for content protection capabilities on your next hard drive and has privacy advocates crying foul.

The group responsible for the proposal is called the 4C Entity and is led by industry heavyweights Intel and IBM. The 4C Entity submitted the proposal to the industry committee that controls the standards for hard drives as well as other removable media.

Opponents contend the plan will lead to content protection code on hard drives that will curtail the exchange of digital audio, video, and information, limiting how people can use their PCs.

Some go further and claim it is the first step toward the end of free content on the Web. They argue that the strategy plays into the hands of greedy music and movie studios and that it could even hinder basic and legal tasks such as hard drive backups.

Proponents of the plan claim such scenarios are ridiculous, and say it has nothing to do with hard drives, but rather with removable storage media such as Flash memory, microdrives, and most rewritable DVD drives. Besides, they say, it affects only protected content-not your everyday text files.

Which side's claims are accurate? It's hard to say, as the main architect of the plan, IBM's Jeff Lotspiech, has twice accepted then later declined our requests for an interview.

An IBM spokesperson says Lotspiech and representatives from the other 4C companies (which include Matsushita Electronic, parent company of Panasonic, and Toshiba) are cloistered to create a document that addresses common questions about the plan. Lotspiech won't comment until the group posts that FAQ on its Web site at an as-yet unspecified time, the spokesperson says.

It's easy to understand why this plan has caused confusion and concern: It is a tangle of awkward acronyms, base-level technologies, and industry politics. It starts with the National Committee for Information, Technology Standards, the industry body that sets the common standards upon which all PCs operate.

The subcommittee in charge of the ATA standard-which controls hard disks and other drives-is called the T13 group. This group is currently working to update the ATA standard.

The 4C Entity is lobbying the T13 group to change the ATA standard, introducing base-level instructions that let device manufacturers implement a 4C-created technology called Content Protection for Recordable Media.

CPRM is basically an encryption scheme. It is compliant with the Secure Digital Music Initiative supported by the big music companies that limits reproduction of secure content.

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