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Sony Security Snafu Worsens

Software to yank an anti-piracy program from music fans' PCs creates a bigger breach.

November 16, 2005|From Associated Press

The fallout from a hidden copy-protection program that Sony BMG Music Entertainment put on some CDs got worse Tuesday as researchers said Sony's suggested method for removing the program widened the security hole that the original software created.

Sony has moved to recall the discs in question. But consumers who have listened to them on their computers or tried to remove the software the CDs installed could still be vulnerable.

"This is a surprisingly bad design from a security standpoint," said Ed Felten, a Princeton University computer science professor who explored the removal program with a graduate student, J. Alex Halderman. "It endangers users in several ways."

The XCP copy-protection program was included on at least 20 Sony CDs, including releases by Van Zant, the Bad Plus, Neil Diamond and Celine Dion. Sony BMG said 4.7 million were shipped, with 2.1 million sold.

When the discs were put into a PC -- a necessary step for transferring music to iPods and other portable music players -- the CD automatically installed a program that restricted how many times the discs' tracks could be copied and made it inconvenient to transfer songs into the format used by iPods.

That anti-piracy software -- which works only on Windows PCs -- came with a cloaking feature that allowed it to hide files on users' computers. Security researchers classified the program as spyware, saying it secretly transmits details about what music the PC is playing. Manual attempts to remove the software can disable the PC's CD drive.

The program also gave virus writers an easy tool for hiding their malicious software. Last week "Trojan horse" programs emerged that took advantage of the cloaking feature to enter computers undetected, antivirus companies said.

Trojan horses are typically used to steal personal information, launch attacks on other computers and send spam.

Stung by the controversy, Sony BMG and the company that developed the anti-piracy software, First 4 Internet Ltd. of Oxfordshire, England, released a program that uninstalls XCP. But the uninstaller created a new set of problems.

To get the uninstaller program, users were asked to request it by filling out online forms. Once submitted, the forms themselves download and install a program designed to ready the PC for the fix. Essentially, the program makes the computer open to downloading and installing code from the Internet.

According to security experts, the program fails to make the computer confirm that such code should come only from Sony or First 4 Internet.

"The consequences of the flaw are severe," Felten and Halderman wrote in a blog posting Tuesday after being alerted by a Finnish researcher, Matti Nikki. "It allows any Web page you visit to download, install and run any code it likes on your computer. Any Web page can seize control of your computer; then it can do anything it likes. That's about as serious as a security flaw can get."

On Tuesday evening, Sony BMG was preparing to release another tool for removing XCP. It was unclear when it might be available.

Other programs that knock out the original software are likely to emerge. Microsoft Corp. said the next version of its tool for removing malicious software, which is automatically sent to PCs via Windows Update each month, would yank the cloaking feature in XCP.

Sony BMG said Tuesday that it would pull unsold CDs with the software from store shelves and let consumers exchange CDs they had already purchased.

The company had said Friday that it would halt production of CDs with the technology and "reexamine all aspects of our content protection initiative."

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