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Analog Hole: Today the USA, Tomorrow the World
January 27, 2006
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In December 2005, US Reps. Sensenbrenner and Conyers introduced a bill, the Digital Transition Content Security Act, commonly known as the ‘Analog Hole’ Bill, in a bid to prevent analog circumvention of digital security measures and try to close one of the last doors against piracy. Does this move have ominous undercurrents with consequences that may well reach far beyond that of copyright protection?

The analog hole simply refers to the analog interface incorporated in digital devices, in many ways analogous to the rf output on most DVD players. It could be argued that the analog hole is an anachronism in today’s digital age, a superfluous and irrelevant legacy. Continuing with our video analogy, it may well offer a relatively inferior signal path to that offered by a digital interconnection but it is certainly good enough for VCD quality, and is more than adequate for all but the most demanding audio applications. So if it has existed for years, why is it only now attracting such attention from the recording industries and legislators and what are the real motives behind it?

Having covered digital duplication in existing copyright legislation and prohibited circumvention of copyright protection mechanisms through the DMCA, the analog hole offers a means of duplication using long established analog technology. The recording industries take the view that even further legislation is required to tighten their stranglehold on consumers, and have now focused their attention on what they see as a back door to piracy. Readers will experience a sense of déjà vu, as many will remember the ill feted Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI) - which failed to win support back in 2002 after it was publicly discredited by USENIX.

This latest assault on consumer freedom uses technology based on CGMS-A + VEIL. The CGMS-A (Copy Generation Management System Analogue) system was established in 1995 as a means of analogue copy protection, relatively easily overcome by use of “video stabilization” devices such as those employed to overcome the Macrovision abuse of the video blanking interval. VEIL, (or “Video Encoded Invisible Light”), is a watermark that is inserted into the video media itself. Originally developed as a means of controlling interactive toys designed to respond to video signals, the plan is to use this to signal rights management. The intention being whenever a CGMS-A signal signifying copy restriction is detected, a VEIL watermark will be inserted into the video path. This whole technology has dramatically been referred to as “a broadcast flag on steroids.”

The suppliers of VEIL, VCP of Missouri, license the technology from Koplar Interactive Systems International, both featuring the enigmatic Edward J. Koplar as Chief Executive. According to reports, requests to view the full specifications for the technology have been met with insistence that the person enquiring completes a draconian non disclosure agreement and makes an upfront payment of $10,000!

Koplar appears to be a name that features extensively in the entertainment industry. According to their web site, Koplar Communications founded “the nation's top-rated independent station”, KPLR-TV in St. Louis, they modestly claim to have introduced one of the first satellite up-link facilities, as well as launching the grandly titled “World Events Productions.” Boasting the creation of such seminal delights as "Denver the Last Dinosaur" and "Voltron, Defender of the Universe", one is drawn to question their credentials in the field of hi-tech copyright protection. Interestingly, VEIL technology was originally developed by them for use in their “Voltron” range of merchandised toys. An interesting transition from kiddies cartoons, through toys to DRM

To many, this whole issue smacks of a return of SDMI through stealth. However, it appears to go far deeper than simply preventing unauthorized copying. People who distribute television signals throughout their properties would be unable to play a DVD in one room to enjoy in others if the analog hole simply became unavailable to them. People who enjoy watching a satellite TV broadcast, digital, or cable TV, or simply viewing the output of their media center would have to buy new receivers for each room of the house in which they have TV sets. A huge outlay for many, and a colossal bonus for the consumer electronics industry.

Given that the vast majority of such appliances originate in Asia, this would have little or no benefit to the consumer electronics manufacturers of either the USA or other countries and would vastly exceed any revenue benefits to the largest movie producers in the world – who are mostly based in the USA. Perhaps it is no coincidence then that few are lobbying stronger for the closure of the analog hole than Sony, who, coincidentally, are one of the biggest investors in the movie industry in the USA as well as being one of the largest manufacturers of consumer electronics appliances in Asia. Curiously, Sony also appear to have a lot in common with VEIL’s Koplar, both being heavily immersed in the entertainment industry in general and the movie industry in particular, both involved in hardware manufacture and both manufacturing robotic toys. Coincidence or conspiracy?

Scott Miller of Koplar wouldn’t be drawn on the issue of collaboration with Sony, apart from agreeing that Koplar were working with all content providers and saying only that “There is no specific plan at this time to use Sony to provide the equipment.” We hardly need emphasize that this doesn’t amount to an outright dismissal.

Sony are past masters at foisting their standards on consumers, including the infamous Betamax and perhaps more relevantly DAT tapes and Minidisks on an unsuspecting world. DAT tapes and Minidisks employed a form of DRM, contributing to their rejection by the public. The recent rootkit fiasco demonstrates that Sony will not baulk at any measure to preserve their profitability, irrespective of the cost to the consumer. And as Scott himself said “This legislation is currently introduced in the US, but it is an important issue worldwide.” Was that “Voltron” himself we heard loudly proclaiming “today the USA, tomorrow, the world”

American manufacturers such as Neuros, situated in Chicago, are innovators in the field of consumer video recording, with many of their products relying on unrestricted access to the analog hole. Yet they are struggling to come to terms with this latest overbearing attempt to reduce choice for the consumer. CEO Joe Born is actively lobbying congress in a desperate bid to have his voice heard above those behind this latest threat to our freedom.

When asked for his opinion on these developments, Joe said “The great irony here is that if you look at history, it's plain to see that innovation in consumer electronics has been as important to Hollywood as it has to the Consumer Electronics industry itself. Think of the benefits that have accrued to Hollywood with each major innovation in Consumer Electronics, from the walkman to the VCR, to the MP3 player. Yet, so many of those innovations were opposed by Hollywood.

Today, closing the so-called ‘analog hole’ would mean that independent Consumer Electronics manufacturers lose their autonomy and ability to independently innovate. Combined with the DMCA, closing the analog hole would essentially mean that every new application will have to be effectively approved by Hollywood. To say this would have a chilling effect on innovation would be a huge understatement.”

Scott of Koplar disagrees. Using much the same distorted logic that John Kennedy of the IFPI used to explain how DRM "helps get music to consumers in new and flexible ways", he said "This legislation is titled 'Digital Transition Content Security Act' for a reason. It’s (sic) desired effect is exactly the opposite – to help the digital transition and foster innovation."

We have to ask ourselves just how far we are prepared to allow trade protection measures by the recording industries impact upon our everyday lives. And, for that matter, just how much are Americans prepared to see American technology and jobs being sacrificed to defend the profits of these largely foreign dominated businesses and those in league with them? Just how long will it take before the hard lessons about trade restrictions learned by the beleaguered Ford permeate through to the government?

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Technology News :: Security

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