Friday, November 04, 2005

Strange days indeed

It wasn't too long ago there was a bit of a tempest in the world of online gaming, because one of the popular online games, World Of Warcraft by Blizzard, began to install software on user's computers for the purpose of spying on them. The software is called Warden (creepy, huh? Don't wardens mostly watch prisoners?) and it raised hackles because it invasively watched EVERY SINGLE THING running on your computer. Browsing the web? Warden can see the title of the web browser window. Composing a steamy e-mail? Warden can see all those saucy terms of endearment you've crammed into the subject line.

Blizzard claimed it wasn't really spying - Warden simply checks it's little black book to see if any of the programs running on your PC are cheat programs that give you an unfair advantage when playing World Of Warcraft. Some people don't believe them. Some people say, "So what? Your program is still taking up space on my PC and slowing it down." Whatever the reason, a lot of people are pretty miffed about it.

Then came the news that certain Sony/BMG music disks install a highly-cloaked system monitor called XCP with certain music disks. The purpose of XCP is to prevent casual copying of Sony CDs - it watches your system and blocks attempts to make copies of the music. But there were big problems with this scheme. For one, the software was installed silently using some very sneaky techniques that are usually reserved for bad guys trying to make mischief. Also, part of Sony's attempt at cloaking was to neglect to mention that they were installing anything on your PC, even in the legal agreement (EULA) for the disc.

Neglecting to provide a way to uninstall XCP was also part of the plan, I guess, since not only didn't they provide one, but they continue to make it difficult to do. (One procedure Sony provides to people who want to get rid of XCP actually installs an UPGRADED version of the program.)

Here's the weird angle on all of this. The Sony cloaking technology is a bit sloppy, and can easily be used to cloak any kind of program you want. Just change the name of a file to begin with a certain sequence of characters, and XCP will grab it and hide it so well that you need to be a software engineer to even suspect it's running on your computer. What this means is that you can use XCP to hide cheat programs from Warden!

Along with other geeks of my vintage, I still fondly remember the days when Lotus and Peter Norton gave up on their lame copy -protection schemes, with the rest of the software industry soon following suit. Copy protection just proved to be too much bother for legitimate users and too little hindrance to pirates to be worth anyone's while. Today's copy protection is no different, but it seems every generation must learn the same lessons over again for itself.


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