Joe Consumer, Beta Tester

by on January 23, 2007 · 4 comments

Ken Fisher at Ars has a great article on the flaws in HDCP, the copy protection scheme that “secures” most high-definition devices these days:

This stuff doesn’t work reliably for even the basic stuff like showing video flawlessly, let alone securing outputs. I even have a HDCP/HDMI issue with my TiVo, which decides that my TV is no longer secure about once a month, requiring a reboot.

Stranger reports have arisen from PlayStation 3 owners who are experiencing blinking displays when connected to some HDTV sets. When playing games, occasionally the sound cuts out and the entire display would blink on and off. As it turns out, the HDCP technology in the PS3 would freak out and sputter if a connected TV could not consistently and quickly indicate it was copy-protection ready. No one knew that this was the case until the guys at Popular Mechanics pinned the tail on the donkey.

When Popular Mechanics ran into this problem with their own test units, they put in calls to Sony, Westinghouse, and organizations involved with HDMI licensing. It was soon determined that the problem lay with the television set’s “interpretation” of the HDCP standards that are built into the PS3’s HDMI output. “The PS3 expects a response that the TV is copy-protection ready in a certain amount of time,” Westinghouse monitor product manager Klaus Liborr explained to Popular Mechanics. “And the response wasn’t coming quickly enough.”

It’s also not a coincidence that as DRM schemes get more “secure,” they also become more likely to break. What a DRM designer means by “security” is that more and more aspects of a device are under the control of the DRM scheme. And if any aspect of the device doesn’t meet the DRM designer’s increasingly strict specifications, the only choice is to disallow access. (after all, the irregularity could be a sign that someone is stealing the content!) But, of course, that means that if the DRM designer makes a mistake–or if a device maker misinterprets the specification–perfectly legitimate pieces of hardware end up disabled. And these problems can be notoriously difficult to trouble-shoot, because each device is likely to interpret the rules a little bit differently, and so what one device considers conforming behavior, another might consider grounds for disabling access.

Now keep in mind that no one seriously believes that HDCP is secure. “Fatal flaws” have been known to exist in it since 2001. So the consumer electronics industry is incorporating technology into HD devices that raise their price, reduce their functionality, and sometimes break them entirely. And this still won’t stop people from uploading HD content onto peer-to-peer networks. Joe Consumer ought to be pissed.

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