You have the right… to reverse engineer

This NYTimes article about the VW diesel issue and the DMCA made me think about how, 10 years ago next month, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) almost kept Mark Russinovich from disclosing the Sony BMG Rootkit. While the DMCA provides exceptions for reporting security vulnerabilities, it does nothing to allow for reporting breaches of… integrity.

I believe that we need to consider an expansion of how researchers are permitted to, without question, reverse engineer certain systems. While entities need a level of protection in terms of their copyright and their ability to protect their IP, VW’s behavior highlights the risks to all of us when of commercial entities can ship black box code and ensure nobody can question it – technically or legally.

In October of 2005, Mark learned that a putting a particular Sony BMG CD in a Windows computer would result in it installing a rootkit. Simplistically, a rootkit is a piece of software – usually installed by malicious individuals – that sits at a low level within the operating system and returns forged results when a piece of software at a higher level asks the operating system to perform an action. Rootkits are usually put in place to allow malware to hide. In this case, the rootkit was being put in place to prevent CDs from being copied. Basically, a lame attempt at digital rights management (DRM) gone too far.

In late October, Mark researched this, and prepped a blog post outlining what was going on. We talked at length, as he was concerned that his debugging and disclosure of the rootkit might violate the DMCA, a piece of legislation put in place to protect copyrights and prevent reverse engineering of DRM software, among other things. So in essence, to stop exactly what Mark had done. I read over the DMCA several times during the last week of October, and although I’m not a lawyer, I was pretty satisfied that Mark’s actions fit smack dab within the part of the DMCA that was placed there to enable security professionals to diagnose and report security holes. The rootkit that Sony BMG had used to “protect” their CD media had several issues in it, and was indeed creating security holes that were endangering the integrity of Windows systems where the software had unwittingly been installed.

Mark decided to go ahead and publish the blog post announcing the rootkit on October 31, 2005 – Halloween. Within 48 hours, Mark was being pulled in on television interviews, quoted in major press publications, and was repeatedly a headline on Slashdot, the open-source focused news site over the next several months – an interesting occurrence for someone who had spent almost his entire career in the Windows realm.

The Sony BMG disclosure was very important – but it almost never happened. Exceptions that allow reverse engineering are great. But security isn’t the only kind of integrity that researchers need to diagnose today. I don’t think we should tolerate laws that keep researchers from ensuring our systems are secure, and that they operate the way that we’ve been told they do.

Comments are closed.