Hackers really have had their way with Sony over the past year, taking down its Playstation Network last Christmas Day and creating an international incident by exposing confidential data from Sony Pictures Entertainment in response to The Interview comedy about a planned assassination on North Korea’s leader.
Some say all this is karmic payback for what’s become known as a seminal moment in malware history: Sony BMG sneaking rootkits into music CDs 10 years ago in the name of digital rights management.
“In a sense, it was the first thing Sony did that made hackers love to hate them,” says Bruce Schneier, CTO for incident response platform provider Resilient Systems in Cambridge, Mass.
Mikko Hypponen, chief research officer at F-Secure, the Helsinki-based security company that was an early critic of Sony’s actions, adds:
“Because of stunts like the music rootkit and suing Playstation jailbreakers and emulator makers, Sony is an easy company to hate for many. I guess one lesson here is that you really don't want to make yourself a target.
“When protecting its own data, copyrights, money, margins and power, Sony does a great job. Customer data? Not so great,” says Hypponen, whose company tried to get Sony BMG to address the rootkit problem before word of the invasive software went public. “So, better safe than Sony.”
Sony BMG rootkit revisited
The Sony BMG scandal unfolded in late 2005 after the company (now Sony Music Entertainment) secretly installed Extended Copy Protection (XCP) and MediaMax CD-3 software on millions of music discs to keep buyers from burning copies of the CDs via their computers and to inform Sony BMG about what these customers were up to.
The software, which proved undetectable by anti-virus and anti-spyware programs, opened the door for other malware to infiltrate Windows PCs unseen as well.
The Sony rootkit became something of a cultural phenomenon. It wound up as a punch line in comic strips like Fox Trot, it became a custom T-shirt logo and even was the subject of class skits shared on YouTube. Mac fanboys and fangirls smirked on the sidelines.
Security researcher Dan Kaminsky estimated that the Sony rootkit made its mark on hundreds of thousands of networks in dozens of countries – so this wasn’t just a consumer issue, but an enterprise network one as well.
Once Winternals security researcher Mark Russinovich -- who has risen to CTO for Microsoft Azure after Microsoft snapped up Winternals in 2006 -- exposed the rootkit on Halloween of 2005, all hell broke loose.
Sony BMG botched its initial response: "Most people don't even know what a rootkit is, so why should they care about it?" went the infamous quote from Thomas Hesse, then president of Sony BMG's Global Digital Business. The company recalled products, issued and re-issued rootkit removal tools, and settled lawsuits with a number of states, the Federal Trade Commission and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Microsoft and security vendors were also chastised for their relative silence and slow response regarding the rootkit and malware threat. In later years, debate emerged over how the term “rootkit” should be defined, and whether intent to maliciously seize control of a user’s system should be at the heart of it.
Back to the future
In looking back at the incident now, the question arises about how such a privacy and security affront would be handled these days by everyone from the government to customers to vendors.
“In theory, the Federal Trade Commission would have more authority to go after [Sony BMG] since the FTC’s use of its section 5 power has been upheld by the courts,” says Scott Bradner, University Technology Security Officer at Harvard. “The FTC could easily see the installation of an undisclosed rootlet as fitting its definition of unfair competitive practices.”
Bill Bonney, principal consulting analyst with new research and consulting firm TechVision Research, says he can’t speak to how the law might protect consumers from a modern day Sony BMG rootkit, but “with the backlash we have seen for all types of non-transparent ways (spying, exploiting, etc.) companies are dealing with their customers, I think in the court of public opinion the response could be pretty substantial and, as happened recently with the EU acting (theoretically) because of [the NSA’s PRISM program], if the issue is egregious enough there could be legal or regulatory consequences. “As for how customers might react today, we’ve all seen how quickly people turn to social media to take companies to task for any product or service shortcoming or any business shenanigans. Look no further than Lenovo, which earlier this year got a strong dose of negative customer reaction when it admittedly screwed up by pre-loading Superfish crapware onto laptops. That software injected product recommendations into search results and opened a serious security hole by interfering with SSL-encrypted Web traffic.
In terms of how security vendors now fare at spotting malware or other unsavory software, Schneier says “There’s always been that tension, even now with stuff the NSA and FBI does, about how this stuff is classified. I think [the vendors] are getting better, but they’re still not perfect… It’s hard to know what they still let by.”
Noted tech activist Cory Doctorow, writing for Boing Boing earlier this month, explains that some vendors had their reasons for not exposing the Sony rootkit right away. “Russinovich was not the first researcher to discover the Sony Rootkit, just the first researcher to blow the whistle on it. The other researchers were advised by their lawyers that any report on the rootkit would violate section 1201 of the DMCA, a 1998 law that prohibits removing ‘copyright protection’ software. The gap between discovery and reporting gave the infection a long time to spread.”
Reasons for hope though include recent revelations by the likes of Malwarebytes, which warned users that a malicious variety of adware dubbed eFast was hijacking the Chrome browser and replacing it, by becoming the default browser associated with common file types like jpeg and html.
Schneier says it’s important that some of the more prominent security and anti-virus companies -- from Kaspersky in Russia to F-Secure in Finland to Symantec in the United States to Panda Security in Spain -- are spread across the globe given that shady software practices such as the spread of rootkits are now often the work of governments.
“You have enough government diversity that if you have one company deliberately not finding something, then others will,” says Schneier, who wrote eloquently about the Sony BMG affair for Wired.com back in 2005.
Lessons learned - or not
The non-profit Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE) has been calling attention to the Sony BMG rootkit’s 10th anniversary, urging the masses to “Make some noise and write about this fiasco” involving DRM. The FSFE, seeing DRM as an anti-competitive practice, refers to the words behind the acronym as digital restriction management rather than the more common digital rights management.
In a blog post on FSFE’s website, the group states: “Despite the fallout of Sony's rootkit experiment, 10 years later restrictions on users' personal property are more prevalent than ever. Restrictions are commonly found in legitimately purchased ebooks, video game hardware, and all manner of proprietary software. It has even found ways into our cars and coffee machines.”
Even worse, as the recent scandal involving VW’s emissions test circumvention software shows, is that businesses are still using secret software to their advantage without necessarily caring about the broader implications.
The object lessons from the Sony BMG scandal are many, and might be of interest to those arguing to build encryption backdoors into products for legitimate purposes but that might be turned into exploitable vulnerabilities.
One basic lesson is that you shouldn’t mimic the bad behavior that you’re ostensibly standing against, as Sony BMG did “in at least appearing to violate the licensing terms of the PC manufacturers” TechVision’s Bonney says.
And yes, there is a warning from the Sony BMG episode “not to weaponize your own products. You are inviting a response,” he says.