Seven years ago, The Register broke what became the biggest DRM story of all time. It described a plot that took place in obscure committee rooms that was quite cunning in its insidiousness. Had it succeeded and been implemented, it would have seen the demise of the open personal computer platform - without anyone realising it. For the first time, many of us became fully aware of the consequences of a locked-down PC.
This wasn't science fiction, but a very real and present danger.
CPRM was a sophisticated, cryptographically-based restriction technology designed for use on removable media, developed at IBM's Alamaden Research Lab. It's the "S" on an SD Card, and 200 million copies of CPRM media have been sold.
However, at the behest of Hollywood interests, moves began to incorporate it into PC Hard Drives, by making CPRM a part of the standard command set for ATA disks. Each hard drive would be individually signed, and total control of the media could be assumed by the rights holder. A CPRM-compliant song or movie file that resided on a CPRM-compatible hard drive could be deleted or locked-down at will: assuming you were given the right to save it in the first place.
This caused an outcry from enterprise users and their software vendors, who quickly realised that CPRM would break existing storage and backup systems. Then, as the implications spread, it became apparent that this provided the Holy Grail copyright holders had been seeking.
CPRM was incredibly hard to break. As a broadcast encryption system it provided a constantly moving target for hackers in the form of a matrix of tens of thousands of device keys; these keys could be revoked and refreshed by the rights holder. A group of manufacturers comprising Intel, IBM, Matsushita (Panasonic), and Toshiba formed a group to license the technology widely.
We published shortly before Christmas 2000, and a fascinating and fairly nerve shredding few days followed. There was no anti-DRM lobby at the time: no P2P bloggers to hound the manufacturers. But understanding this one required learning some obscure technical procedures, and a little about standards committee politics.
CNet followed-up, but the reporter failed to do the necessary homework, so was easily misdirected by PR spin. It looked like our story might die, and it was only when Dawn Chmielewski put the issue on the front page of the San Jose Mercury nine days later that I could breathe easily.
In the ensuing storm, the issue reached the boardrooms of Intel and IBM. The perception of a locked-down media appliance hurts business. What the hell are we doing? directors demanded.
CPRM on ATA was dropped from the spec - but from there we entered even more dangerous territory. The T.13 committee produces a specification that covers only the lowest common denominator set of operations, and two thirds of commands are "vendor-specific". A Western Digital or a Seagate often produces its own.
See any parallels to today? Let's see...
Western Digital's ineptitude
What was your reaction to the "news" that Western Digital apparently cripples its drives to prevent MP3 files being exchanged? Another root kit, right?
In fact, the hard drives aren't really crippled at all: if you're a Samba user it's just another bog-standard piece of Network Attached Storage, an Ethernet drive like any other.
What's "crippled" is Western Digital's optional extra, a virtual file system for Windows users called Mionet. But then it always has been.
Mionet is marketed as a virtual filesystem, and permits you to access your home Windows PC across the internet. It actually does quite a bit more: a shared workspace, and remote device access, for example viewing your webcam remotely. It's a "placeshifting" service, of a kind.
Many of these services are intentionally limited, and this one is no different: Mio blocked shared media over an internet connection long before Western Digital acquired the startup earlier this year.
It's Windows only - so Mac and Linux users can continue to use Samba. Western Digital helpfully included a page describing how to set up Samba. WLAN users aren't inhibited from these restrictions, and these are so easily circumvented (share the user/password among friends) as to be little more than a token nuisance.
So who's kidding who, here?
Well, blogs have dropped the story of the "scandal" like a hot potato. The anticipated consumer boycott fizzled away when word got out that it wasn't doing anything deceptive. It's marketed as a placeshifting/backup drive, it's hard to see how a lawsuit could argue otherwise. Many Linux users simply format the drives anyway, and carry on as normal.
This is a long, long way from the insidious deep integration of DRM into our hardware that we discovered with CPRM on ATA.
But this marks one clear difference from seven years ago. Back then, it was an effort to get people interested in DRM issues. Today, as the internet pulsates with rumour, paranoia and conspiracy, there's a different kind of problem. This constant background noise - and people's willingness to jump in fear at their own shadows.
Instead of information scarcity, there's information overload. So to make sense of this Tower of Babel, people construct a "Daily Me", establish informal social networks of news sources. These, in turn, tell people how to feel about a news story.
Many bloggers today are attuned to the slightest indication that the Imminent Crackdown has begun. It's Black Helicopter country: "Net Neutrality" couldn't have happened without it.
The need to be seen to be reacting "instantly" (and with the "correct" emotion) also militates against sober heads doing the detailed technical analysis required. The upshot of all this is that it makes gauging the "threat level" exceedingly difficult.
This brings us to the second difference from the turn of the decade - and it's slightly more positive. Technological restriction mechanisms such as DRM are, more often than not, bad for business.
We can't say it will always be so. But if a major storage manufacturer were to implement a low-level system enforcement of copying MP3 and video files, it would soon be dealt a swift lesson from the market. No one understands that the demand for larger hard drives comes from sating our appetite for digital media better than the Hard Disk guys.
Plus ca change
Mind you, some things don't change. In October, at its most recent meeting, the T.13 committee heard a proposal for "external path" protection. This is similar to the "secure path" protections in Vista, designed to inhibit unlicensed High Def DVD content such as BluRay. This is already part of the SCSI specification.
(See document e07187r2 for more details.)
Yet even if Microsoft implements driver-level support for External Path protection (as it has for "Secure Audio Path") - will there be any takers?
I doubt it. DRM is falling away from music as sound recordings owners begin to realise they need radically more attractive offerings to compete with the unstoppable tide of free music. No technology force majeure will step in to save rights holders today.
I worry far more that our willingness to fight yesterday's war - fuelled by a Fear Industry of paranoid bloggers - blinds us to the next scam.
Reassure me here. ®