A Discussion With Russell McOrmond on Hollywoods New Intel Chip

Just shortly after new years, news surfaced on multiple websites where Intel was developing a chip that would support high definition copy protected content for streaming purposes. The news intrigued us, so we discussed some of the issues that came up with coordinator of Digital Copyright Canada and Canadian consultant Russell McOrmond.

Note: This is an article I wrote that was published elsewhere first. It has been republished here for archival purposes

Intel recently revealed what it calls the second generation Intel core processor. While there was many interesting things about this chip, one thing stuck out to us at Computer World:

Intel is also upgrading its Wi-Di technology, which enables users to wirelessly transmit images and video from a PC to a high-definition TV. Users will now be able to stream 1080p content, an improvement from the previous 720p resolution. Users will also be able to stream protected movies from the Intel Insider feature, Regis said.

Here’s what CNet mentioned:

Access to Hollywood content is also baked into the chip–a technology called Intel Insider. “This will unlock premium high-definition content, like movies, to your PC,” Kilroy said. “We’ve gone out and engaged with the studios. So, you’ll see Warner Bros. and Fox at launch [of Sandy Bridge] and several other studios to come. They’re eagerly embracing this platform as a distribution means for premium high-end content–as Internet content [offered] directly to the end user.”

Kilroy continued. “What Intel Insider does is deliver HD digital distribution rights to the PC. This could be enabled through multiple content storefronts through OEMs (PC makers), retailers like Best Buy. Essentially, the PC now becomes an on-ramp for HD 1080p movies,” he said.

And Intel has added security features to protect the content. “And we’ve built in security capability into this platform that will enable end-to-end hardware protection for the content. So, it will protect the premium content rights of the studios,” according to Kilroy.

The idea that Hollywood is influencing hardware development is certainly interesting. With a form of digital locking built right in to the chip being discussed, we thought it would be interesting to speak to someone about this.

We asked him about what this means when these chips will be able to play protected content – that maybe it doesn’t mean much because really, this kind of streaming might only affect protected content in the first place.

“What does “only on protected content” mean?” Asked McOrmond, “All you can do with content is encrypt it such that you need the right decryption keys to access. All of what we call “DRM” is in software (which includes firmware) which runs on hardware. It is dishonest to “sell” someone hardware without giving the owner the keys to what they own. By falsely passing off a vendor-dependent content delivery system as if it were copyright related, we then don’t regulate it correctly. These schemes can not and do not protect copyright, but allow the vendors to circumvent the traditional contours of copyright, contract, competition, privacy, property and trade law. It allows those vendors to replace legal code with unaccountable software code.”

We also asked via e-mail about if this is all part of the Trusted Computing some have been warning us about in the past. McOrdmon said, “having cryptography in the GPU is the same theme but different than what the trusted computing folks were doing with the separate trusted platform module. It is still locked hardware/firmware within a theoretically general purpose computer where the owner is treated as the attacker.”

He added, “It is hardware that is positive security where owner holds keys, but in my mind morally repugnant when the owner is denied keys.”

When the news was first circulating, we wondered if the mentioned digital locks could spark anti-trust suits from other chip manufacturing vendors. McOrdmond was skeptical with these theories, “I wish. I have been talking to folks at the Competition Bureau about this for many years now.”

McOrmond then explained things from a policy standpoint, “As long as people (policy makers, lawyers, copyright holders, etc) are confused into thinking TPMs have anything at all to do with copyright, it will be very hard to regulate appropriately.”

“As soon as this is understood as a vendor-dependent content delivery platform, all the existing regulation including competition/anti-trust will come into play.”

“It will also allow copyright holders to make informed decisions about how to distribute and license their content, allowing for revenue streams they are currently giving up due to their confusion. They don’t realize this is a beta-vs-vhs battle all over, and they are deliberately choosing not to offer any content legally on VHS.”

Certain forms of copy protection often seem like they are designed to circumvent certain copyright laws in a given country. Canada is a great example where copyright reform has been pushed several times, but never passed in governments in the past and in the current government – at least, the major pieces of copyright reform like Bill C-60 under the Liberal government, Bill C-61 under the Conservative government previously and, now, Bill C-32 under the current Conservative government.

McOrmond addressed how TPMs can affect copyright laws:

“If TPMs are protected in copyright, it allows a TPM vendor to replace the traditional contours of copyright (and other laws) in software. This means any aspect of copyright (what it regulates, limitations, exceptions, term, etc) have no meaning at all in the presence of a legally protected TPM.

No further changes to Copyright required for a majority of scenarios — Copyright law only applies in analog/unencrypted scenarios.”

We also asked McOrmond about how digital locks aren’t protected by Canadian copyright laws and he commented, “Digital locks aren’t protected in Canada at all at the moment. This is unfortunate as they have legitimate purposes under contract, e-commerce, privacy and other laws. I have been writing my provincial MPP in Ontario (currently also the Primier) suggesting modernization in these areas, but without the industry backing this direction it is unlikely. The legal community generally sits entirely confused about the whole question.”

“Bill C-32 protects Access Control TPMs (the relevant type) for non-copyright-infringing activities, and explicitly states that the new very limited fair dealings enhancements do not trump digital locks. This means that in the presence of a TPM the contours of copyright don’t matter.”

“Time/device/format shifting with an analog VCR is legal, but with DVD and PVRs it is not.” McOrdmond smiled, “Better grab those VCRs from landfill”

We then also asked McOrmond to elaborate on whether the development of this chip is a move towards trusted computing or if this is a move in a completely different direction, “This is a language issue.”

“TPM could mean “Technical protection measure” (Bill C-32) or it could mean Trusted Platform Module.”

“Issues with the Trusted Platform Module are not technological, but legal.”

“When the owner of the device holds the keys to the TPM, then this is an instrumental tool to protect against malware and intrusions. This allows the owner to ensure that no unauthorized modifications can be made without them being detected. This is a critically important tool for the future of computing. This is especially critical in mobile.”

“When someone other than the owner of the device manages the keys, then the TPM circumvents the legal rights of the owner and can itself be considered a form of malware that enforces unauthorized modifications to the system.”

“In some cases the owners will outsource key management to an IT firm. But this must be the choice of the owner, not something imposed by the collusion of hardware manufacturers and confused politicians/lawyers.”

“Identical technology has opposite purposes depending on who holds the keys.

“The law should protect the right of the owner to control who has keys, and should make it clearly illegal for someone other than the owner to treat the owner as an attacker. This should be protected in property law, and has nothing to do with copyright.”

“Confusion by parliamentarians about technology and copyright is being abused to flip the law on its head and legally protect abuses that would otherwise be legally prohibited.”

“The term “Trusted Computing” is like TPM — it has different, and sometimes opposite, meanings depending on who you talk to. Everything comes down to the question of who owns what is locked, and who controls the keys.”

One thing that also came to mind with regards to this chip is any potential impact on, say, the Linux community. McOrmond commented, “If the owner of the computer doesn’t hold the keys and can’t make their own software choices, then they can’t chose Linux.

“But this isn’t about Linux. It is about protecting the rights of computer owners to manage the keys and make their own choices. MS Windows and MacOS are legitimate choices, just not legitimate to impose.”

“Now lets flip back to content for the moment. Having more and more content encrypted to only work with specific brands of technology is a lesser but still critical problem. It is saying that in order to fully participate in Canadian culture you need to “chose” from a subset of technology brands.”

“It is like saying that in order to participate in Canadian federal politics you must be a member of the Liberal-Conservative party (the one from Confederation). You are free to make any choices you want, and you are free to not participate in politics, but it is an illegal circumvention of the Trusted Politics Measure (TPM) to participate in politics as a member of the Reform, Bloc, NDP or any other third party.”

It was at this point that we mentioned the story about the Playstation 3’s root key being discovered and said how that, given this is just the latest protected mechanism that has been cracked, would this chip with its own “copy protection” eventually see a similar fate. McOrmond responded, ” I wouldn’t use the word “copy protection” as that is a vague marketing term and not a specific technology that can be discussed in a way that would have meaning.

“The hardest thing for people to realise is that the Access Controls on content aren’t all that relevant to copyright. The potentially anti-competitive cryptographic tie between encoded content and specific brands of technology only needs to be unlocked by one person among the 6.5+ billion people on the planet. The now unlocked content can be unlawfully shared the same as if the lock never existed. It will be from these sources that a vast majority of average (less technical) citizens will get their infringing content.”

“As an alleged form of “copy protection”, this is pretty much useless.”

“The non-owner locks on our hardware/software is a different scenario. While it is true that if you put a safe and the key into the home of a safe cracker that the safe will be opened, especially if he bought the safe and is morally (if not legally) correct in believing it is his/her right to open it.”

McOrmond seemed to be skeptical of relating the two scenarios, “The issue is that unlike with the content scenario, each lock on hardware/software can have its own key and thus opening one doesn’t open it for everyone. If you find the root key and can create a generic unlocking tool usable by average citizens then great, but that isn’t always or even often going to be the case.”

“This means that most peoples hardware/software will still have non-owner locks on them which will limit what the owners can do. These limitations have absolutely nothing to do with copyright, and everything to do with third parties other than the owner having control over the means of production and distribution in the knowledge economy. The harmful repercussions of this are considerable on society, and relate to many other activities we have laws on the books for, but these harmful activities have little if anything to do with copyright.”

“What I find sad in this fight for basic digital rights is that we have to try to convince so-called Conservatives and other mainstream political parties about the value of protecting private property rights, and trying to explain to them all the social, economic and political problems that can result from this lack of protection.”

McOrmond, at this point, reminded me of his article on “a href=http://www.digital-copyright.ca/node/4456 target=”_blank”>The Two Locks of DRM” and said, “Getting people past thinking this is about so-called “copy control” and encrypted content is the most important part of the battle.”

“DRM = Dishonest Relationship Misinformation.”

“The term Digital Rights Management begs the questions: which and whose rights, and is “management” just a euphemism for circumvent?”

“IE: Digital property rights circumvention? Digital contractual rights circumvention? Digital privacy rights circumvention?”

As our conversation ended, he said, “My concern with all of this really has nothing to do with copyrighted content, and everything to do with the non-owner locks on our hardware/software”

We would like to thank Russell McOrmond for discussing these issues at length with us. For more commentary by Russell McOrmond, you can visit his blog at Digital Copyright Canada.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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