So now that the HDCP key is loose, what does it all mean?

Summary:Did anyone seriously think that HDCP was unbreakable? Really?

There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission. If we wish to make it louder, we will bring up the volume. If we wish to make it softer, we will tune it to a whisper. We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical. We can roll the image, make it flutter. We can change the focus to a soft blur or sharpen it to crystal clarity. For the next hour, sit quietly and we will control all that you see and hear.

That, of course, is the classic opening to the 1960s TV series, The Outer Limits. While the opening narration was designed to get viewers' attention, it also encapsulated the belief of major media producers for just about the next 40 years.

It was all about control.

Oh, but then those little freaks, Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker, introduced Napster and Big Content learned the concept of fear. It wasn't just that Napster let students everywhere trade music for free, it was the Internet, which suddenly caused content to devalue as it made it instantly and globally accessible.

To those of you born recently, you have no idea what an innovation the VCR was. For the first time, regular consumers could control what they got to watch, and when. Before that, if you wanted to see a movie, you had to either go to the theater or wait for it to come on TV.

Of course, there was no TiVo, so you couldn't record your movies and watch them later. You had to be home to see the shows, when they were broadcast. That was the essence of appointment TV.

VCRs were good, but VHS movies were easy to copy, despite the best efforts of schemes like Macrovision. Untold millions either recorded movies off their TVs or copied movies they'd rented from the video stores. Worse of course, there was a breed of scum who would copy and then resell movies in volume.

Then there were a bunch of idiotic schemes that were floated for a while, including one by Circuit City called DIVX (not DivX, the codec). In this scheme, you could rent a movie disc for $4 or so, and after about 48 hours, the media would actually self-destruct. Yes, I know how crazy that sounds.

Then DVDs came along. They were heralded by industry veterans as the Holy Grail, for they were highly encrypted with something called CSS (Content-Scrambling System), which was designed to prevent DVDs from being played except on approved players -- and, of course, from being copied.

On October 6, 1999, the collective dreams of the movie industry were dashed when a Norwegian teenager named Jon Lech Johansen (we still know if him today as "DVD Jon") released DeCSS, a publicly available algorithm for removing DVD decryption.

Still, the movie industry didn't learn its lesson. They suckered Congress into passing the DMCA, one of the most restrictive and anti-innovation pieces of legislation ever to be shoved down American throats since the Stamp Tax (look it up).

Even though DVDs had been cracked, there was a new hope on the horizon: HD. High Definition would change everything. HD wasn't an analog format and every stage along the chain could be controlled and locked down. If you wanted to play an HD movie, you'd have to have an HD player which would talk to a screen or an amp, and all of the devices along the chain would have to be properly approved devices, or nothing would run.

The abortion that made all this possible was called HDCP, or High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection.

The problem is, HDCP sucks.

HDCP sucks, not just because it restricts content. It sucks because many different devices don't quite properly talk to each other. Have you ever tried to get 5.1 or 7.1 surround out of an HDMI-equipped video card? About half the time it works, and the other half, it doesn't.

There's a tremendous amount of overhead in all HD systems and that overhead is the highly-encrypted technology called HDCP.

But that's okay, because -- at least from the movie industry's perspective -- HDCP is unbreakable. HDCP means your Blu-ray movies will remain their Blu-ray movies. Once again, like back in the sixties, "they" were able to "control all that you see and hear."

Except, maybe, not so much.

Did anyone seriously think that HDCP was unbreakable? Really? About a week ago, Intel confirmed that the HDCP Master Key had been released into the wild. Hey, if you want it, just follow that last link. You can have it.

So what does this all mean?

Intel claims that if you use the Master Key, they'll prosecute you. They also claim that the Master Key won't work without a custom-designed chip. Therefore, Intel claims, HDCP is still safe and will still protect the movie industry from its customers.

Intel is smokin' some wacky tobacky, that's for darned sure.

Look, here's the thing. Nothing -- and I mean absolutely nothing -- is safe from hard-up teenagers still living in their mom's basement. DVD Jon was 16 when he published DeCSS. Six-frickin-teen!

We've already seen programs available for sale that can break Blu-ray encryption so you can back up that copy of Monsters, Inc. before your toddler eats it.

There is no doubt there will be homebrew gadgets and even some commercial kits that encapsulate the HDCP Master Key in hack form. No doubt at all.

The real question is this: now that the HDCP cat is out of the bag, wouldn't it be better for manufacturers to give up on the blasted thing and make our HD interconnects far more efficient?

Better, yes. Will they do it? Nah, no way.

According to Wikipedia, there are 611,900 practicing software engineers in America, along with a pile of additional managers and programmers.

Just remember this: for all the highly-trained engineers working in the computer and movie industries, there are a whole lot more teenagers. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2008 there were 21,469,780 teenagers in the U.S. between the ages of 15 and 19.

Teenagers have the advantage, 35-to-1. Think about it.

Topics: Hardware, Mobility

About

In addition to hosting the ZDNet Government and ZDNet DIY-IT blogs, CBS Interactive's Distinguished Lecturer David Gewirtz is an author, U.S. policy advisor and computer scientist. He is featured in The History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets, is one of America's foremost cyber-security experts, and is a top expert on savi... Full Bio

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