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

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

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

TOPICS: Hardware, Mobility

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


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • The MPAA and industry in general are so clueless...

    The MPAA and industry in general are so clueless, I can practically guarantee their next move will be, "Introduce HDCP 2.0, force everyone to buy new TVs, Blu-Ray players, etc. That'll fix it."
    • RE: So now that the HDCP key is loose, what does it all mean?


      I know I, for one, haven't upgraded to the next gen of video/audio largely on vague bafflement and annoyance over HDCP. Not to mention the extra cost to manufacture that HDPC tacks onto everything.

      That and the fact that my 1080p tv pre-dates HDCP so it wouldn't work anyway.

      Extra cost? Check. More confusion? Check. Less Reliability? Check. Benefit to me as a customer? Zero.

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

      @olePigeon It will accelerate their move into streamed services. I wonder if they already have backup keys already preinstalled. It would be good engineering practice if someone actually did a decent FMEA.
      Then again, that would require farsighted leadership to authorize the extra cost so therefore the probability is low.
  • RE: So now that the HDCP key is loose, what does it all mean?

    olePigeon is correct, at least in part. If one looks at Big screen TV sales, the hardware industry speculated that the World cup would see a massive sale of those monsters at ridiculous prices; remember ? What was the outcome ? They didn't move off the racks and into homes as fast as speculated. Hs anyone thought about the fact that we are in an economic downturn and people are having trouble putting food on the table; let alone buy more HDCP 2.0 "stuff" ? I say if the movie industry and Intel want to try to push this down our throat, let them; see how far it gets in an economic downturn that gets worse every day... Time to wake-up and smell the dead roses Hollywood !!!
    • RE: So now that the HDCP key is loose, what does it all mean?


      You just gave a perfect example of collective delusion. The "movers and shakers" of that industry are all chasing the same myth, so they all support each other in their fallacious reasoning to reach the patently false conclusion they all want to believe.

      Unfortunately, we have several other major industries that do the same thing -- and have ready access to government bailouts when the chickens come home to roost.
  • Sheep

    Let's all wake up. The outlook is bleak. Most people over the last ten years have been perfectly happy to line up to pay extra for reduced functionality. Most weren't even aware that their HD cable was lower resolution than many broadcast channels. They didn't get why their 55", $2,500.00, 240Hz TV with 2ms response time wasn't quite so snappy as my $130(albeit after MIR) 23" 1080p computer monitor. People DID it with DVD, the ARE DOING it with Blu-Ray and Cable(Take a look at how many cable card products exist). The sheep lack taste, discretion, and knowledge, and you probably don't want to watch what is being beamed into their brains anyway. Just get Netflix, and discover the joy of streaming in the interconnected data infrastructure we like to call the matrix... uh... I mean the web... yeah.
  • Not sure what it means for...

    ...users of consumer players or proprietary operating systems.

    However, I reckon it won't be long until penguinistas will simply "sudo apt-get install libdehdcp" or similar, much as one installs libdvdcss today. Then we will be able to rip hdmi streams to h264 files on our hard drives and deploy|back them up as we wish. Brilliant news!

    Best wishes, G.
    • RE: So now that the HDCP key is loose, what does it all mean?

      @mrgoose Oh yeah!
    • RE: So now that the HDCP key is loose, what does it all mean?

      I kinda like the title "penguinista" :)
  • RE: So now that the HDCP key is loose, what does it all mean?

    in the last two decades, the RIAA and MPAA have stiffled more technology with their antics and their control/restrict mentality. And in "Revenge of the Nerds" fashion, technology leap-frogs them and the consumer gets some breathing room. If they had not burned up all the good will, some might feel sympathy. They delayed DAT, demanding clock incompatibility with music CDs and as a result it never found a market. In techno-revenge, the arrival of CDR provided much better (and same-media compatibility). The home-computer crowd of the mid-90s who had been hoping that DAT might provide low-cost archival found the digital CDR a God-send. The music industry kept CD prices high, even as recordable media fell twenty-fold and at the same time reduced content quality while adding lame digital rights management schemes (remember Sony and the Root kit?). DMCA was a cruel joke and DeCSS is just deserts; the consumer has little tolerance for an industry that just does not get it. Give the consumer quality and a reasonable price and you get sales in a down economy. Deliver trash with restrictive DRM and nobody buys it. High-Def DVD lost to Blue Ray, but it was the industry that ultimately is going to lose. NetFlix and streaming content (such as Apple iTunes) business models ARE working and the RIAA/MPAA are trying to figure out why their cash flow, based on obsolete thinking, is drying up. The genie is out of the bottle, again, and old thinking won't compensate, but they will try.
    • RE: So now that the HDCP key is loose, what does it all mean?


      NetFlix and iTunes are awesome examples. Let me buy the content at a *reasonable* price in a form that I can use it when/where I want it and I'll buy.
    • I'm Done

      @jpratchios@... As a 50-something, I'm done with RIAA/MPAA. I've gone from 45's to 33-1/3s to CD to streaming, and from broadcast to Beta to VHS to LaserDisc to DVD to streaming. Other than my Caddy Shack DVD, enough is enough and I just don't need to own, I mean rent it!
    • RE: So now that the HDCP key is loose, what does it all mean?

      @jpratchios@... Well put. I think all the maneuvers the RIAA/MPAA have gone through the last decade or so really underscores why both the whole business model surrounding copyrighted works and the copyright laws themselves are in serious need of an overhaul. The more the media companies try to restrict, control, and litigate the consumer along with screwing over the artists, the more business the media companies are going to loose... it's really that simple.
  • RE: So now that the HDCP key is loose, what does it all mean?

    Stepping away from the HDTV tech talk for a minute, I'd like to point out that at one time, every single encryption algorithm was considered "unbreakable;" however, proper application of technological advances and cognitive effort have continued to break the unbreakable. Consequently, it should be no surprise that the HDCP key takes residence beside such unbreakable standards as 3DES and its predecessors (and AES, too, in time).

    I think the bottom line comes down to the fundamental principle of encryption--to DELAY the inevitable decryption long enough to render the data obsolete by the time it has been decrypted. So, now that HDCP is open market, I wonder what new and wonderful ways the HD vendors will think of to further complicate matters...
    • RE: So now that the HDCP key is loose, what does it all mean?


      This kind of stuff (DRM) should be made illegal and they should focus on going after the people who sell pirated DVD's and Blu-Rays..... NOT on the people who are sharing over the internet for no cost.
      • RE: So now that the HDCP key is loose, what does it all mean?

        @Lerianis10 ("they should focus on going after the people who sell pirated DVD's and Blu-Rays..... NOT on the people who are sharing over the internet for no cost.")<br><br>Sorry, but there is technically no difference between those 2 examples. What DRM and DMCA unfairly prevents are many instances of *legal* usage (making a backup copy to use instead of wearing out the original DVD you've bought; making a digital copy for your ipod, of a release from a band you've ALREADY bought on vinyl, 8-track, cassette and CD, and should NOT be required to buy yet again from itunes). <br><br>But don't try to justify your ' no cost sharing' with others (piracy) by thinking that is or should be legal.<br><br>Making copies of something that is simply not available anywhere else is still kind of a gray area, IMHO... if the publishers would make everything ever released available in digital form for us to buy, that wouldn't/shouldn't happen either, though. e.g. find me a digital copy of Doors sound-alike Phantom's Divine Comedy ( so I don't have to setup/hookup my Beogram turntable to rip it from vinyl.
      • RE: So now that the HDCP key is loose, what does it all mean?


        Yep, there is: in the first case, the pirates for pay are ACTUALLY TAKING DOLLARS OUT OF THE POCKETS OF THESE COMPANIES.

        Pirates who are non-paid? Not so much.

        That also forgets that many people are already paying for these things (albeit in lesser form) via cable, satellite, FM radio, etc.
  • RE: So now that the HDCP key is loose, what does it all mean?

    They are realizing now that even so-called "unbreakable" quantum cryptography isn't really so unbreakable and they are taking steps to "protect" it. And the arrival of quantum computing will render every other "encryption and control technology" absolutely transparent.

    And does anyone else hate the way that Blu-Ray doesn't allow you to use your mouse to control the player on your computer?
  • Past time for the customers to get angry

    And DEMAND that these DRM things that treat LEGITIMATE CUSTOMERS as potential criminals were made illegal and BANNED from usage, period and done with.
  • The premise is pooched from the get go.

    "Big Content" is still controlling what you see and hear, their just losing control of HOW you see and hear it.

    Let me preface this by stating I'm no friend of the 'industry', they have screwed over their artists for ever. That pre-dates your being angry at the industry for them making it harder for you to steal.

    That's right, your thieves. I can see there being a need to be able to make a back up of something purchased, but be honest, thats not really what this is about. It's so you can do with content as you wish.

    Heres where your screwing yourself: Costs money to make quality content. Unless the people creating that content get money for their creation they will not be able to afford creating that content. People have to eat.

    You crack the code, the money stream dries up and eventually there will be nothing of value left to steal.

    And we'll be left with content on par with Auto Tune.