Jan 052012

The ignorance that Hollywood shows regarding technology (and the contempt they show for their paying customers) never ceases to amaze me. Their refusal to look at the reality of their situation proves more and more that the studios are out of touch with modern society.

Hollywood was once against the VCR, fearing that it would be a haven for piracy and that being able to watch movies whenever the consumer wanted would ruin Hollywood completely. Fast-forward 35 years and Blu-ray sales topped 230 million discs globally in 2011. (I was unable to find anything but weekly data for DVD sales, unfortunately.)

Sony thought that they were in the right to install rootkit software on people’s PCs to keep them from ripping the content of those CDs to MP3 files. This rootkit was then bypassed by either covering the data area of the disc with a permanent marker or by preventing the disc from automatically booting. I would have loved to have been in the meeting between the managers and engineers when that news broke.

Even though DVD encryption has been cracked for over a decade and Blu-ray encryption was cracked a few years ago, the studios to this day still demand that discs are encoded with region codes and with encryption, both of which can be bypassed in minutes. To add insult to injury, Blu-ray encryption can be problematic for legitimate customers when new encryption keys are implemented but older players don’t update properly.

To top it off, one of the biggest signs that Hollywood and media conglomerates in general are clueless is that all Internet users are restricted by arbitrary, geographic boundaries when it comes to streaming media even though the Internet as a whole doesn’t recognize geographic boundaries. The most insane example of this is how Americans cannot see clips on the Canadian web sites for Comedy Central or Discovery channels and vice versa even though both web sites use the same video clips.

The latest proof of Hollywood’s technological incompetence comes courtesy of Asus.

Asus’s newest Android tablet, the Transformer Prime, is probably the best Android tablet to date and offers the biggest bang for the price. However, Asus made a tactical mistake by using an encrypted bootloader. For the non-techie types, all that means is that Asus made it difficult (if not impossible) to install an operating system other than the included version of Android. This, however, created a firestorm in the Android community because of the premise that buyers would not be allowed to do what they want with the hardware that they bought. Admittedly, many of us who were upset by this are upset more because of the principle, not that we would ever actually try to install a completely different operating system.

Asus responded a few days after the backlash started by stating that they will make a tool available later this month to decrypt the bootloader on the tablet (or at least provide a new, unencrypted bootloader); however, doing so will violate the warranty. That’s fair enough, but people who want to do this generally do it with the understanding that their actions will void the warranty.

What’s more intriguing is the reason why Asus implemented a locked bootloader in the first place. According to the official statement:

Regarding the bootloader, the reason we chose to lock it is due to content providers’ requirement for DRM client devices to be as secure as possible. ASUS supports Google DRM in order to provide users with a high quality video rental experience.

This is one of the most absurd statements that could possibly be made. I have no doubt that this is meant to be a smoke screen to hide the fact that Hollywood, being technologically clueless, demanded it, even though it’s unrelated to streaming media.

The problem is that locking the bootloader has absolutely nothing to do with the real concern – gaining the highest-level access (root access) and capturing the video stream to a file that can be viewed at any time, transferred to another device, or even uploaded to the Internet. All that a bootloader does is load the operating system. Think of it as the equivalent of a computer’s BIOS. The system is turned on, the hardware runs the bootloader, and the bootloader starts the operating system. Once the operating system starts to load, the bootloader is no longer of any concern.

More importantly, just about all phones with locked bootloaders can be hacked to grant root access without decrypting the bootloader. My R2D2 Droid 2 has a locked bootloader, but I have root access to the operating system. I could capture a stream from Netflix if I really wanted to. The only thing I can’t do on my phone is install a new operating system onto it, which I don’t need to do to intercept a video stream anyway.

So, Asus effectively lied with their explanation because the reason that they gave is unrelated to the concern. Google, I’m sure, knows this because they are the ones who created Android and the associated DRM. So, the only other culprit who could have demanded a locked bootloader is the Motion Picture Association of America. (One could argue that Google and Netflix demand it because they both rent the movies and therefore are the “content providers”, but you can rest assured that the MPAA demanded it of Google and Netflix.)

Notice also that nowhere did Asus say that unlocking the bootloader will disable Google DRM. It merely says that they are required to make the device as secure as possible. If the locked bootloader is necessary, as Asus calims, then unlocking the bootloader would make the DRM useless and therefore the user wouldn’t be able to get video streams. This glaring omission confirms that Asus knows that the bootloader is irrelevant to capturing video streams, but they decided to lock the bootloader anyway.

Only the technically incompetent MPAA would feel more secure with such an unrelated “security” measure. This is the same MPAA that thinks it’s a smart idea to buy out our Congress to force Spain to adopt US-mandated anti-piracy measures. They think that you can successfully sue your customers to loyalty. They think that continuing to inconvenience paying customers with encryption and DRM that has long since been broken is a great idea. I guess that I shouldn’t be surprised that they forced Asus into anti-piracy measures that had no chance of doing what they expected it to do.

Too bad that Asus will never admit to it.