Controversial security paper makes public debut

As expected, a controversial scientific paper that describes how to disable security technology for digital audio files was publicly presented for the first time on Wednesday evening at the USENIX Security Symposium held in Washington D.C. Yet author Edward Felten a professor at Princeton University called the event a partial victory, since the organizations that worked to quash the paper in the past will likely continue their efforts.

Findings in the paper, entitled “Reading Between the Lines: Lessons from the SDMI Challenge,” were discussed by Scott Craver, coauthor and a member of Felten’s research team. The paper was prepared in response to a challenge that the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI) organization issued to the public last year, and describes in technical detail how watermarking security technologies that are designed to protect the copyright of digital audio files can be disabled.

The paper concludes that while watermarking is a valid security technology, it is not a good fit for protecting digital audio copyright because it would be expensive to implement and can be disabled without much effort.

“We believe that if this technology is deployed, it will be broken quickly,” Craver said.

After threatening legal action when Felten originally intended to publicly discuss the paper’s findings in April, the SDMI and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) this time assured the authors that no legal action would be taken for presenting the paper now. The two groups in the past threatened Felten and his colleagues with claims that the paper’s findings violate the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which forbids providing technology that bypasses industry controls limiting how consumers can use music they have purchased.

“The fact that Scott was able to give this talk does represent a victory, but only a partial victory,” Felten told the audience during a panel discussion after Craver’s presentation. “The (recording) industry didn’t give us the go-ahead for the rest of our work. There’s no protection for anything we write, for anything you write. The music industry still wants editorial control over what we can say.” Felten’s team is developing technology that would improve upon what the SDMI presented in its challenge last year.

Felten and his coauthors filed suit in June against the SDMI, the RIAA, the U.S. Department of Justice, and Verance Corp., a company that made one of the watermarks Felten’s team cracked, requesting First Amendment protection to present the research without fear of reprisal. According to Cindy Cohn, legal director with the Electronic Freedom Foundation that is representing Felten in this case, hearings are expected to begin in September.

SDMI, in San Diego, Calif., can be reached at Felten’s Web site is located at The Electronic Frontier Foundation, in San Francisco, can be reached at Information about the USENIX conference can be reached online at