Protecting Pretty Pix, Keeping Consumers Cool

"Time flies." "You can't stop progress." "If you snooze, you lose." Yes, of course I'm ranting this month about the war on piracy.
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You might not have noticed that the second law of thermodynamics has spawned quite a few adages. "Time flies." "You can't stop progress." "If you snooze, you lose." Yes, of course I'm ranting this month about the war on piracy.

Most folks have a pretty darned good handle on that second law. Take a piece of paper. Light a match. Bring its flame to the paper. Let it burn.

Now go ahead and ask even a two-year-old whether you can turn the ashes back into a piece of paper. Nope. Everyone knows time moves in only one direction (which is one way of paraphrasing the second law).

Yes, everyone seems to have a good handle on the second law, except for a group of content-protection enthusiasts who believe that time moves backwards. I'll get to them in a bit, but first this message from the sages at the Consumer Electronics Association, CEA, or, as I like to pronounce it, See-ya.

Every year, See-ya publishes something called "Digital America." It used to be called "The U.S. Consumer Elect-ronics Industry in Review," but See-ya knows time marches on. Anyhow, it's chock full of all kinds of current and historical info on things that might be of interest to readers of this fish wrap, such as audio, television, and video.

It's also got info on things that some folks might never have heard of, like radar detector detectors. That wasn't a typo. Here's Digital America 2006 on the subject:

"RDDs work on the principal that all radar detectors leak a small amount of signal and these signals can be detected and the police officer alerted to the presence of a radar detector. The first RDD unit was the VG-2 Interceptor, manufactured by Kustom Signals Inc., which looked for leakage within the 11-11.4 GHz frequency band."

So, naturally, radar-detector makers switched frequencies. So RDD manufacturers adjusted. So radar-detector manufacturers took other countermeasures. So cops switched to lasers. So the radar-detector industry added laser jammers. And so it goes.

The whole fascinating story (complete with model numbers and what law-enforcement tools they subvert), is available on the Web at www.ce.org.

Click on "Press," then "CEA Publications," then "Digital America," then "2006 Edition," then "Mobile Electronics," and, finally, "Lasers and Anti-Radar Radar." Do it before the Department of Homeland Security shuts it down as they've done so effectively with bomb-making instruction sites on the Web.

Anyhow, I didn't shovel coal into my word processor this month to talk about radar and lasers. I just thought the progression was instructive.

Police go after speeders with radar. Speeders buy radar detectors. Police buy radar-detector detectors. Speeders buy RDD-proof radar detectors. Police switch to lasers. Speeders buy laser jammers. Time marches on. The second law of thermodynamics wins.

Now try TV technology. Thousand-line video gets invented. Content protectors sit on their hands. Digital TV gets invented. Hands stay put. DTV receivers that can deliver thousand-line pictures to the Internet get sold. Hands still in place. FCC orders every device with a TV tuner to get some of that digital reception. Hands creep out.

YE GRANDE OLDE FLAG

So the FCC issued its broadcast flag order. It didn't have a blessed thing to do with Old Glory transmitted through the air. No, it was for protecting the spigots through which content flows.

Got an HDMI spigot feeding a TV? It would have needed content protection. FireWire to a DVR? More content protection. Demodulated 8-VSB inside a TV feeding a demultiplexer? Content protection or else potting in epoxy so a viewer with a screwdriver, a soldering iron, and (oh those typical consumers!), clip leads, an EEPROM burner, and a debugger can't get at it. I am not making this up.

Then again, the FCC, Our Beloved Commish, didn't seem to care about analog outputs. No pirate would ever think of digitizing those and feeding the Web. And they also didn't seem to care about down-rezzed digital outputs, even though 960x540 looks pretty darned good, especially when later up-rezzed with something like the Brick House Syntax or Snell & Wilcox Quasar.

Anyhow, a court said Our Beloved Commish didn't have the authority to order such things. So Congress has gotten into the act-literally. Any day now (which is legislativese for "before the end of time"), our elected representatives might come up with an order that requires tuners to be potted with demods, demuxers, decoders and anything else with an unprotected digital output of any sort.

UNLESS THEY DO

If a miracle happens, and the law is passed and takes effect tomorrow, that will leave only tens of millions of unprotected DTV receivers out there. No pirate would ever think of buying one of those.

Silly me! I forgot that the second law of thermodynamics is unproven to this crowd. Methinks they believe that, as soon as the law is passed, all unprotected receivers will disappear off the face of the earth, and so will all unprotected Blu-ray and HD DVD players, D-VHS machines and HD DVRs.

"But, Mario, are you saying a 'broadcast flag' law would have no effect?"

Heck, no! It'll have plenty of effect! DTVs will be more expensive. HDTV recorders will be harder to use. Maintenance that could have involved replacing a tiny part will require a complete subassembly instead. But it surely won't stop many pirates.

AVAST YE!

"Curses! A potted subassembly! Don't bring me an older, unprotected receiver!"

Meantime, there is a perfectly good way to protect content. It's good enough that AMD, Broadcom, Cablevision, DirecTV, Fox, LG, Philips, Samsung, SanDisk, Texas Instruments and Thomson all support it, along with a bunch of other folks.

It's based on a novel idea: If you want to protect content, why not protect the content, not the connections over which it travels? No need to pot anything. No need to add DTCP to FireWire.

It's called the secure video processor. You could look it up on Google.

It does have a few holes. But at least it ain't entirely stupid.