Video Security Blanket

by on February 23, 2006

Via the Commons Music blog, I see this in-depth article about the fact that hardly any graphics cards you buy today will be compatible with the forthcoming HDCP copy-protection standard:

HDCP stands for High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection and is an Intel-initiated program that was developed with Silicon Image. This content protection system is mandatory for high-definition playback of HD-DVD or Blu-Ray discs. If you want to watch movies at 1980×1080, your system will need to support HDCP. If you don’t have HDCP support, you’ll only get a quarter of the resolution.

As part of the Windows-Vista Ready Monitor article, I was going to publish a list of all of the graphics cards that currently support HDCP. I mean, I remember GPUs dating as far back as the Radeon 8500 that had boasted of HDCP support.

Turns out, we were all deceived.

Although ATI has had “HDCP support” in their GPUs since the Radeon 8500, and NVIDIA has had “HDCP support” in their GPUs since the GeForce FX5700, it turns out that things are more complicated–just because the GPU itself supports HDCP doesn’t mean that the graphics card can output a DVI/HDCP compliant stream. There needs to be additional support at the board level, which includes licensing the HDCP decoding keys from the Digital Content Protection, LLC (a spin-off corporation within the walls of Intel).

The more I read about these kinds of enterprises, the more I’m struck by how brittle they are. Each and every component in the HDCP content stream–the optical drive, the operating system, the graphics card, and the monitor, and numerous small components, must be specifically reviewed and approved by the HDCP consortium to make sure that they follow the rules. The millions of drives, computers, graphics cards, and monitors that were designed prior to the release of the HDCP spec (i.e. virtually all the video hardware in use today–even hardware that’s physically capable of playing high-resolution video) will have to be thrown out if consumers want to view Blue-Ray or HD-DVD content. This is a tremendous cost in time, money, and consumer inconvenience.

Yet if a vulnerability is found in even one of those components (something that history and theory say is inevitable), the entire exercise becomes pointless. Somebody will exploit the vulnerability to decode the file and upload it to a P2P networks. At that point, all the DRM in the world won’t stop someone from downloading an unprotected copy.

The HDCP effort is akin to adding a third deadbolt to your front door when the back door doesn’t even have a lock. It might make some of us feel better, but it’s not going to do much to stop the bad guys.

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