Crackers and Crackdowns

From Kevin Mitnick to Jon Johansen, the Empire strikes back.

DeCSS author Jon Lech Johansen's home was raided by special police forces at the whim of the Motion Picture Association, an organization which affectionately refers to itself as “a little State Department”. Jon's Linux box, his FreeBSD/Win2k box, as well as his Nokia cellphone (which we are sure played a large part in helping him to provide a DVD player for Linux, and is likely to harbor dark and mysterious secrets) have been confiscated. Although Jon was questioned for seven hours and then released, he and his father are charged and could face fines and up to two years in prison. The GILC, a coalition of civil rights groups throughout the world (notably including the EFF), has condemned the action as a violation both of the Human Rights Accords of the United Nations and the First Amendment of the US Constitution. Almost ironically, Jon's reverse-engineering rights are specifically protected by the notorious Digital Millennium Copyright Act (which itself is probably unconstitutional). (Incidentally, many have questioned whether the American constitution has much validity in Norway, a question of national sovereignty which is often overlooked; the point is merely that Jon violated neither American nor Norwegian law.)

DeCSS has been the source of much contention between the Linux community and government/industry (it's hard to tell government and industry apart these days). Linux hackers wanted to play DVDs on their Linux boxes, while the movie industry wanted to prevent people from being able to copy DVDs. Although currently the sheer size of DVDs is a better copy restriction than the most elaborate encryption, the techno-ignorant industrial lawyers probably allege increased bandwidth and some new compression scheme to make DVD distribution possible some day, as is currently the case with mp3s (a fair expectation). Still, encrypting DVDs hasn't any effect on whether or not they are easy to copy, so it's not clear how the industry's line of thinking holds up (apparently through techno-ignorance, though it's likely they have in mind complete control of the player market which would make them greater villains than we had initially suspected).

Jon and his group MoRE (Masters of Reverse Engineering) managed to break the encryption scheme (the actual breaking of the code is said to have been accomplished by an anonymous German member), apparently intercepting the data as it passed through a piece of hardware unencrypted (due partially to a design error on the part of the hardware manufacturer). As cryptographers know, it's not difficult to break encryption when you can watch the data get decrypted, although such a feat of international significance is outstanding, and pardon the age-ism (in technology, it seems age can be inversely proportional to intelligence) impressive for someone so young. Now 16 years of age, Jon is at the center of an international scandal and a focal point in the ongoing struggle between freedom-endorsing hackers and techno-ignorant, corporate-controlled, authoritarian government. The danger, however, is that the battle has escalated and American corporations have such sufficient influence over police, even in Europe, that a teenager can have his home searched and seized at their arbitrary intimations.

One question is why. Why is the MPA invading someone's home in another country and stealing this person's possessions to use as evidence to lock him in an iron cage for a couple years? Why are seven major Hollywood studios (Disney, Sony, MGM, Paramount, Fox, Universal Studios, and Warner Bros) assaulting one person and his father? They say it's because these studios are worried about potential “unauthorized duplication” in the future (when everyone has a T3 and terabyte hard drives), and they are worried about losing a few DVD sales this way (apparently more sales than they lose through not having a free DVD player for Linux). Of course, the techno-ignorant industry doesn't understand that encryption won't make duplicating DVDs any more difficult, but try telling them that.

Or do they know already? The encryption would allow the industry to put regional codes into DVDs, preventing American DVDs from running in Europe (where movies come out several months later and at higher prices), or preventing Indian DVDs (which cost less since India has less money) from running in America. In essence, it's an attempt to “extract the consumer surplus” by a technique known as “price discrimination” (which is in fact illegal according to US and much international law as well). If DVDs cost the same the world over, prices would be lower for consumers. In addition, the encryption facilitates censorship across continents and gives the DVD Copy Control Assocation complete domination over the DVD player market (which apparently involves huge licensing fees and whatnot). But why, why won't they tell that to the judge? Why do they keep lying?

The obvious conclusion would be that the industry is up to no good and can't let anyone know. These are the same seven studios who assault a human who exercises basic civil and technological liberties, as long as profit is perceived to be at stake. In years past, the predecessors to corporate leaders probably led invasion armies to colonialize and plunder the world. As usual, the handful of decent people is left to suffer. The more things change...