Ethical Issues Surrounding the Sony Rootkit

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  • Topic: Sony, Digital rights management, Sony BMG
  • Pages : 6 (1879 words )
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  • Published : October 18, 2008
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Extended Copy Protection (XCP) is a software package developed by the British company First 4 Internet (F4I) and sold as a copy protection or digital rights management (DRM) scheme for compact discs (Wikipedia 2005). This software is designed to control the distribution (copying) of material on compact discs. One version of this software, ‘XCP-Aurora’, was used as a copy protection measure by Sony in 2005. This software was discretely included in many Sony music CD’s at that time. On the first occasion that a user attempted to play or copy music from a CD containing XCP, the software was automatically installed on the users system. It is noteworthy that this only applies to the Microsoft windows operating system; the software had no effect when used in conventional CD players or on computers running Linux or other operating systems. The key ethical point at this time is that this software was installed entirely without user knowledge or consent. Furthermore there was no way to safely remove the software from an affected CD, in fact some attempts could result in rendering CD drives inoperable due to registry settings adapted by the software on installation. The fact that the software was designed to be hidden and installed without consent has led to it widely being described as Spyware (the term Rootkit is used for reasons I will describe later).

In order to examine the ethics of this situation I believe that first one needs to examine why Sony used this software in the first place. In the past Sony have enjoyed a very generous share of the entertainment market. As new technologies have been developed and made available, this share has diminished. In particular Web based companies such as napster or Itunes have been created in direct opposition to Sony who sell their entertainment on CDs/DVDs. As this rivalry developed Sony adopted an aggressive stance. "The industry will take whatever steps it needs to protect itself and protect its revenue streams...It will not lose that revenue stream, no matter what...Sony is going to take aggressive steps to stop this. We will develop technology that transcends the individual user. We will firewall Napster at source - we will block it at your cable company, we will block it at your phone company, we will block it at your [ISP]. We will firewall it at your PC...These strategies are being aggressively pursued because there is simply too much at stake." (Sony Pictures Entertainment US senior VP Steve Heckler, August 2000). This quote was in fairness taken at a time when napster was simply allowing users to download music at will and without charge but it does provide an insight into the company mentality of Sony with regard to internet based competition.

Sony’s public reasons for including the XCP-Aurora software was that the software was to protect CD’s from unauthorized copying and ripping. A rootkit is defined as a set of software tools frequently used by a third party (usually an intruder) after gaining access to a computer system. These tools are intended to conceal running processes, files or system data, which helps an intruder maintain access to a system without the user’s knowledge (Suzi Turner Blog Nov 18 2005). One of the main operations of the XCP-Aurora software is to conceal its own existence. It does this in the manner of a rootkit, leading to its more common name, The Sony Rootkit.

The international community however took a very different stance on the use of the software however. The general response being that Sony had gone too far in protecting its own commercial interests. The software package installed intercepted any media playing or ripping software other than the package included on the disc forcing users to use Sony’s own software to access the media files on the discs. While this package allowed the user to play the songs on the CDs, it limited the number of times that the music could be copied to other CDs or to portable...
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