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Computing At Chaos Manor:
March 6, 2007

The User's Column, March, 2007
Column 320, part 2
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2007 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

Continued from last week.

It could be coming to a courtroom near you: conviction of serious crimes with no evidence of intent, and lives ruined by utter incompetence of judge, jury, and prosecutor. It may be reversed on appeal, but it shouldn't go that far. It ought to be ended by action of the Governor of Connecticut, who should issue a full pardon in the interests of justice, then refer the case to whatever body supervises judicial assignments in Connecticut to see that this judge never again presides over a trial more serious than minor traffic infractions.

You've probably heard the story already. A good account is given here.

For a readable technical commentary, see this link.

I'll summarize: A substitute teacher, not computer literate, was working with a school-owned Windows 98 desktop. The OS hadn't been updated in a long time. An old copy of Internet Explorer did not have safety patches. There was no router. The firewall program license had expired. The anti-virus software had not been updated in years, and there was no anti-spyware software at all. The computer, in other words, was open to any mischief available on the Internet. Some of the students were allowed to use the machine. One accessed a site advertising information about hair dressing techniques, but which apparently also offered other products including penis enlargement pills.

Suddenly but hardly surprisingly the computer was hit with a porn storm. Popup after popup, all pornographic, appeared. The teacher had been told not to unplug the computer or turn it off - but nothing short of that would stop the porn storm. Closing Internet Explorer didn't work, and as fast as she would click to close one popup another would appear.

Similar things happened to me once a few years ago, and I certainly had not deliberately visited a porn web site. I have since got a router, installed Windows OneCare, download all security updates to both Windows and Internet Explorer, and seldom use Internet Explorer anyway. I normally use Firefox with popup blocking enabled. I expect most of my readers have similar setups.

But that's you people. Most 40 year old substitute teachers aren't that sophisticated. Neither, clearly, is the teacher who actually used the computer and kept it in that sorry state, but wouldn't entrust the substitute with the user name and password (that's why she was told not to turn it off: she wouldn't be able to log back on). It happened that the porn storm happened to the substitute, but it could as easily have happened to anyone else: that computer, connected directly to a high speed Internet connection, was just waiting to be taken over by one or more worms or Trojans.

In any event the teacher was charged with harming minors by exposing them to pornography; this is a serious felony in Connecticut.

When the case came to trial, the Connecticut judge allowed a clearly incompetent police detective to pose as an expert, then would not allow the defense to educate the judge and jury about Internet realities. The detective testified that the accused must have "typed in" the URL for the porn site; he apparently claimed to be able to distinguish between sites visited through clicking on a web site, and physically typing in that address. So far as I know such distinctions are not possible, and experts were ready to present that as a defense, but the judge would not allow that.

My solution to the problem: while I am generally in favor of leaving most criminal matters to the States, we have Federal Civil Rights Laws, and this is clearly a case of a Civil Rights violation: if there is any such thing as Federal Civil Rights protected by the Federal government, then surely citizens have the right to minimal competence of judges, and to present technically correct facts when the prosecution's expert makes a fool of himself.

I think the judge and district attorney in this case ought to be charged under the Federal Civil Rights Act with violating the teacher's Civil Rights; the prosecutor for being so incompetent as to present this detective as an expert, and the judge for not bothering to inform herself of the minimum technical facts. Meanwhile the Governor ought to end this ordeal and end it now, and ground that judge lest she hear another case requiring technical competence.

Next time it might be you.

The Public Radio Model

Chaos Manor Reviews continues the columns I wrote for BYTE (first in the magazine, then on-line) from 1979 to mid-2006. When BYTE declined to renew my contract, I began Chaos Manor Reviews on the "Public Radio" model: that is, it's free to anyone who wants to visit. We don't have banner advertisements or popups. I have experimented with Google ads, which result in enough revenue for a decent dinner quarterly, but no more than that.

The only way this place stays open is through subscriptions. A subscription to Chaos Manor Reviews is also a subscription to Chaos Manor Musings http://www.jerrypournelle.com/ which is my private daybook/log. Most public radio stations get 2 to 4% of their listening audience to subscribe. Chaos Manor Reviews doesn't do quite that well. On the other hand, public radio stations have periodic pledge drives: KUSC has several each year, a whole week in which listeners are exhorted all day.

Think of this as a pledge drive. If you enjoy Chaos Manor Reviews, and you don't subscribe, here's how.

More on Vista Activation

Just after column deadline last week, I got this from Chaos Manor Associate Dan Spisak:

There is a new Vista activation crack that actually works now. It uses a new feature of Vista that allows OEM copies of Vista to not require activation for certain 3rd party system builders by way of doing userland space BIOS emulation to fool Vista into thinking you have one of these blessed BIOSes.

My first draft had a link to the original story, but that link now leads to an entry that proclaims "You're too late." That's just as well, because I tend to be queasy about giving links to such cracks, and thus tempting readers to try them out. In general I do not encourage copyright violations.

Dan's letter continues:

From the site:

"Microsoft allows large hardware manufacturers (e.g. ASUS, HP, Dell) to ship their products containing a Windows Vista installation that does NOT require any kind of product activation as this might be considered an unnecessary inconvenience for the end- user. Instead these so-called 'Royalty OEMs' are granted the right to embed certain license information into their hardware products, which can be validated by Windows Vista to make obtaining further activation information (online or by phone) obsolete. This mechanism is commonly referred to as 'SLP 2.0' ('system-locked pre-installation 2.0') and consists of the following three key elements:

1. The OEM's hardware-embedded BIOS ACPI_SLIC information signed by Microsoft.

2. A certificate issued by Microsoft that corresponds to the specific ACPI_SLIC information.

The certificate is an XML file found on the OEM's installation/ recovery media, ususally called something like 'oemname.xrm-ms'.

3. A special type of product key that corresponds to the installed edition of Windows Vista.

This key can usually be obtained from some installation script found on the OEM's installation/recovery media or directly from a pre-installed OEM system.

If all three elements match Windows Vista's licensing mechanism considers the given installation a valid system-locked pre-activated copy (that does not require any additional product activation procedures).

So the basic concept of the tool at hand is to present any given BIOS ACPI_SLIC information to Windows Vista's licensing mechanism by means of a device driver. In combination with a matching product key and OEM certificate this allows for rendering any system practically indistinguishable from a legit pre-activated system shipped by the respective OEM."

-Dan S.

I'm not sure this is of much practical use, but it does indicate one path to defeating activation. I am also certain that Microsoft will fix the problem. Peter Glaskowsky points out that the fix is trivial, requiring only that Microsoft provide each major OEM with a unique installer and remove the BIOS-specific tests from the generic "OEM" and retail versions.

It is an illustration of the eternal contest between those who provide security, and those who look for ways around it.

A Technical Discussion of Digital Rights Management Technology

Peter Glaskowsky, chip design engineer and former Editor in Chief of Microprocessor Report, comments on my previous treatment of Digital Rights Management:

I liked the rodeo analogy for DRM. Exactly true for today-- but the long-term outlook is different.

The same algorithms that protect electronic funds transfers, diplomatic communications, and military orders can protect software and multimedia content. It isn't yet practical to use military-grade cryptography for every byte of an operating system, application, or movie, but eventually it will be.

The key (no pun intended) is to do the whole thing in hardware, with every device having a unique private key that is embedded in the microprocessor and unreadable by the user. The corresponding public key is used to register the system, a shared key that matches the distribution medium is encrypted to that public key and sent to the device, and the processor uses the shared key to decrypt the software before running it.

This whole process is practical today, though only a few specialty vendors such as Cavium Networks make hardware that could implement it. Ten years from now, the capability could be universal among PC processors. It may not be widely used, however. This level of security conveys moderate benefits to software vendors, content creators, and end users, but these benefits may not justify the added costs and risks of robust security technology.

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Robert Bruce Thompson, author of Building the Perfect PC, echoes many computer experts in saying:

That's a false analogy. To confirm this, you might run it past a cryptologist first. It's mathematically impossible for a PK encryption system to remain secure if the user possesses the plain text, the key, and the ciphertext. In a military encryption system, that's not true. For DRM of audio, video, and software, it is true.

Robert Bruce Thompson

Peter Glaskowsky replies:

For this purpose, at least, I am enough of a cryptologist. What I said is true.

In a public-key system, there is no one "key", there are two keys, and it's entirely possible for the system to remain secure even if a bad guy has access to the plain text, the public key, and the ciphertext.

If you have the public key you can even perform a chosen-plaintext attack, which is worse than a known-plaintext attack-- but it still won't work.

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My contribution to this was to note that they were talking past each other. Bob Thompson, and a number of other computer experts, are convinced that the only way to have secure communications is to use encryption, and in order to give anyone the ability to decode the material and thus view (or listen to it), the secret must be shared. The act of sharing the secret makes it possible (some would say inevitable) for that secret to get out, if not by technical discovery, then by social engineering - that is, by getting someone who knows the secret (i.e. the decryption key) to share it, either through persuasion, coercion, bribery, or some combination of those.

Peter Glaskowsky replied:

My point is that it's technically feasible to arrange the system so that end users don't know any valuable secrets. There are secrets in the system, but users never have access to them, and so couldn't sell them if they wanted to. In fact, the system can be arranged so that the secrets are centralized only within a small number of servers which can be very tightly controlled so that even the operators of the servers can't discover the secrets.

This security model (more or less) is already used for financial, diplomatic, and military communications. It just hasn't been practical to implement strong security in PCs. Moore's Law is making it possible-- has already done, really, but we don't see it yet because other issues have occupied the attention of PC hardware and software developers. It'll happen.

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Skeptics point out that secure financial, military, and diplomatic communications are not generally shared with any large groups. Once that happens this will make a lot of difference.

Most of those who write about Digital Rights Management agree with the American Rodeo saying: "There never was a horse that couldn't be rode, and there never was a cowboy that couldn't be throwed." It is certainly the case that in order for someone to watch a movie, that movie has to be shown on a screen, and anything that can be shown to human senses can be copied in digital format, and those copies can be duplicated. Copies are never as good as the original, but if the copy is good enough, then, since it is digital, copies of those copies will also be good enough.

In practical terms, all that's necessary to protect intellectual property is to make it difficult and expensive to steal it. It doesn't have to be safe from highly sophisticated attacks; it does need to be safe from common criminals. That may not be possible, and some think it can't be done, citing the failure of CSS protection for DVD's, and the recent penetration of HD-DVD and Blu-Ray discs.

If you get the impression that there's no definitive answer to these questions, you are correct. That doesn't make this matter unimportant. We need some kind of protection for intellectual property. The alternative is that everyone operates on the public radio system, or that artists find sponsors and patrons. Writing (and painting and composing) is hard work. Were I to win the lottery and have independent means, I don't suppose I would entirely cease to write; but I certainly would cut back on output, and I think that's true of most people in my racket. My detractors might say this is no bad thing; but removing the ability of artists to make a living through their art is probably not a generally good thing.

Yet: while I favor protection of intellectual property, we should not make the cure worse than the disease. Those who seek to protect intellectual copy by technical means, and those who seek to break those means, will ever be at war, and that's fine with me. The market will take care of schemes that unduly burden legitimate users. It's when the protectors turn to the criminal law and arrest programmers for cracking the protection scheme that we must be concerned.

The EarthLink Technical Support Scene

Roberta's original EarthLink account was set up by EarthLink founder Sky Dayton one evening at Chaos Manor. He set mine up as well. This was before EarthLink took off. Roberta wanted a web site from which to sell her reading instruction software.

Shameless plug: the best way I know to teach anyone from age 4 to 94 to read English, and the best insurance I know of to make sure your kids are not victims of the increasingly bad reading instruction in school; 70 half hour lessons http://www.readingtlc.com/.

Anyway, she turned to EarthLink because they had an excellent technical support program, and they were able to get her up and running very quickly. We used FrontPage to build the site and she maintains it herself.

My first site was hosted by Darnell Gadberry, an old friend who was in that business (he's now a professor of computer science), because I wanted to learn more about the Internet and Darnell was good at teaching. My site developed more traffic than we expected and I quickly went to a commercial site; then long time fan and reader Brian Bilbrey offered to take over site hosting at a very reasonable price, and I've been with that ever since. Periodically we offer Roberta the opportunity to come over to Mazin where I am, but Roberta is adamant about not fixing something that isn't broken.

In order to accept credit card submissions Roberta had to get a Merchant Account at a bank, and do a bunch of other stuff including having EarthLink set up a secure link for customers. (We also use her site to collect subscriptions by credit card. See this link.

A couple of weeks ago, a reader sent a disturbing message: his attempts to order from Roberta's web site failed, and the Internet popped up a warning that the site wasn't secure. Clearly no one in his right mind was going to order her software, or subscribe to my web site, after seeing that.

Roberta called EarthLink tech support, and found things have changed. When EarthLink was first set up, tech support was located in Pasadena, California, which is local to us; they were patient and competent, and we even knew some of them. (Joe Zeff, an old friend, was one of them.)

After EarthLink merged with Mindspring, tech support went first to Atlanta, then was exported to India. The Bangalore tech support people were polite and competent, and spoke good if accented English.

EarthLink tech support is now located in the Philippines. Apparently they can hire tech support people in the Philippines for less than they have to pay to set up tech support centers in India. The effectiveness of the Philippine tech support centers is another story.

After not quite an hour on hold, Roberta got through. Alas, between the high compression of the VOIP connection and the accent of the support personnel things were difficult. Clearly they were reading from scripts, but they didn't read them intelligibly, and she had to make them repeat everything they said, sometimes more than once. She found that embarrassing, but there wasn't anything she could do about it. Eventually she found that EarthLink had changed their security certificates, and ours had expired. They had also changed the URL of the secure connection, but she didn't find that out yet. They did tell her she had to buy a new Security Certificate. This would be just under $200.

Our records don't indicate we ever bought a security certificate before: that came with the secure connection and was part of the site hosting fee (which isn't small to begin with). However, as best she could determine given the language problems, if we wanted to continue to accept credit cards we had no choice, so she ordered the Security Certificate. That, she was told, would fix the problem.

Three days later the problem remained unchanged. Again Roberta spent an hour on hold to get someone in the Philippines who was marginally comprehensible. After an hour of haggling she got someone else, who told her that in addition to the Certificate having expired, they had changed the URL of the Secure Site without bothering to tell us.

She got the new URL. I put that into the link at my web site. Now when readers try to subscribe by credit card they can do so. I will leave drawing the moral of the story as an exercise for the reader.

Second Life

Lindon Labs' Second Life is an attempt to build the virtual world described in Neal Stephenson's futuristic science fiction novel Snowcrash. That novel set an impossibly high standard, and Second Life doesn't come close to that. On the other hand, it is a fairly interesting place to visit, and a lot of people have actually found a home there.

The simplest way to find out more about this Massive Multi-User Dungeon (MUD) is to go there for a visit. If you intend to stay in the Second Life virtual world you will want to pay for a Premium Account ($9.95 a month at the moment) but you can do quite a lot with the Basic Account - and that's free.

On the other hand, it can be a confusing place. Not everything works properly; I never did get the free vehicles on the training island to work properly. They wouldn't turn. A number of interactions work slowly: there can be considerable lag, depending on when you connect, and how.

These are minor bugs, and in fact won't really affect your Second Life experience once you get used to them. On the other and, it's my understanding that a number of people never get past their early unsatisfactory experiences and don't continue long enough to learn what Second Life is really like.

A real Second Life experience will take many hours of being connected, and several days in real time (not continuously connected: it's just that like in real life there are different events at different times and on different days).

There's a way to get around that. Get the book Second Life by Michael Rymaszewski and many others (Wiley, 2007). This describes the virtual world in pretty glowing terms, and has many illustrations; indeed I'll go so far as to say that if you read this book and still have no interest in the Second Life experience, you may as well forget about it. The book discusses degrees of participation, including people who make a pretty good living in the real world through their activities in Linden Labs Second Life.

And if you do decide that Second Life is a good place to spend time, you'll definitely want this book. There's nothing in it you can't find out by tooling around in Second Life and paying attention, but that's a bit like saying there's nothing in a good tour guide to Paris you can't find out by living there long enough.