Over at Freedom to Tinker, Alex Halderman and his adviser Ed Felten have been causing headaches for SunnComm, the makers of broken technology designed to prevent the copying of music CD’s. Alex is the Princeton graduate student who enjoyed worldwide media attention two years ago, when he showed that SunnComm’s “MediaMax” anti-copying software could be disabled by holding down the “Shift” key while inserting a CD into your computer. Alex’s paper about this was downloaded over a hundred thousand times, and caused SunnComm’s stock to lose $10,000,000 in a week. By comparison, my paper Quantum Lower Bound for Recursive Fourier Sampling has (I think) been downloaded at least twice, and would have driven Recursive Fourier Sampling In 2o(h) Queries Incorporated out of business, had it existed.
Now Alex and Ed are reporting that SunnComm has continued to “innovate.” It seems that the latest version of MediaMax, which is included with several Sony/BMG music CD’s,
- secretly installs itself even before you accept the End User License Agreement,
- remains installed even if you decline the agreement, and
- secretly “phones home” to SunnComm with information about your activities, despite assurances to the contrary.
Alex and I met in seventh grade at Newtown Junior High School. I had just transferred from a parochial school, and was so low in the social hierarchy that, when kids beat me up, I was grateful for the attention. My one consolation was that, out of all the kids in the school, I — and I alone — knew that dx3/dx=3x2 and that t’=t/√(1-(v/c)2). Most importantly, I alone knew how to program in GW-BASIC.
So you can imagine the existential shock when I heard there was another kid in seventh grade who was already writing Windows applications and marketing them as shareware. Clearly I had to meet this guy, see if he was for real. After I found out that he was — and repaired the gaping holes in my ego — Alex and I became best friends. We remain so twelve years later.
Even in junior high, Alex was obsessed with security issues: his bestselling program, if I remember correctly, was an encryption utility. At the same time, he was obviously a “white hat.” Rather than getting himself into trouble by hacking the school computers, he’d simply make the teachers utterly reliant on his expertise, then ask them for administrator privileges.
One day in the cafeteria, Alex excitedly brought me a book he was reading, which described a bizarre-sounding encryption system called “RSA.” Supposedly, with this system you could send someone secret messages without ever having met them to agree on a key.
“But that’s obviously impossible,” I explained. I was proud that, for once, I could use my superior mathematical knowledge to set Alex straight.
Eventually Alex and I both ended up in academic computer science, albeit on opposite sides of it. Perhaps the difference between us is best summarized as follows. For Alex, the impossibility of making digital information copy-proof is a central truth of our age: something to be explained, and then re-explained, to judges, reporters, and businesspeople, in amicus curiae briefs and interviews on NPR. For me, it follows from the fact that the set of n-bit strings constitutes an orthogonal basis for Hilbert space.