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The week in review: Pirate TV

An age-old battle to prevent people from pirating cable TV signals flares up again, and high-speed Internet connections are part of the reason.

An age-old battle to prevent people from pirating cable TV signals flares up again, and high-speed Internet connections are part of the reason.

A small but growing group of cable TV pirates are using their high-speed Internet connection to pilfer video signals. Hackers say they can easily run an additional line from their PC's cable modem into the television. Without a set-top box, the result is free, basic, analog cable; with an illegal converter or set-top box, hackers say they have access to premium channels such as HBO and Showtime.

The advent of digital cable and broadband Internet access is seen as a mixed blessing for operators, bringing advancements to both deter theft and increase it. Siphoning TV access from cable modem lines is just one wrinkle to widespread cable piracy, but companies such as AT&T Broadband, Cox Communications and Comcast Cable Communications say they are aware of this specific kind of theft and are taking various measures to stop it.

Viewers have rights too, or at least that is the argument of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is suing for your right to record TV programs and skip the commercials. The online civil liberties group has filed suit against more than two dozen entertainment companies on behalf of five consumers who own ReplayTV recorders, asking a judge to declare activities such as recording and fast-forwarding legal.

The complaint said court action is needed because an "Entertainment Oligarchy" made up of the networks and studios has repeatedly called consumers' use of the ReplayTV 400 "theft" and "stealing." The plaintiffs hope their case will be consolidated with an earlier suit involving ReplayTV and will help bring the interests of consumers to the forefront in litigation.

Hollywood dodged a second bullet in a burgeoning battle over online film distribution, quickly shutting down an Iran-based Web site that had sold access to copyrighted films over the Internet for $1 apiece. Tehran-based Film88.com registered its Web site in April, and the company had briefly operated a video-on-demand site renting a long list of Hollywood hits such as "Star Wars" for viewing on PCs.

Welcome hack
A computer sciences graduate student claims to have cracked the security systems that prevent Microsoft's Xbox game console from running unauthorized software. In a research paper published a few days ago, Massachusetts Institute of Technology student Andrew Huang detailed the procedure by which he retrieved the software "keys" that a game disc must contain for the Xbox to recognize its contents as legitimate code.

Using the key, hackers presumably could write Web browsers, MP3 players and other popular applications for the console. Hackers who want to benefit from Huang's work are out of luck, however.

"I'm not going to share the secret code at all, or the key--those are Microsoft copyrighted items," Huang said. To crack the Xbox code, Huang developed a custom circuit board that he soldered between two key Xbox components. The board intercepted traffic between the components, from which Huang was able to extract the critical security keys.

A security company warned that hackers could exploit an outdated, little-used Internet protocol to seize control of computers running Microsoft's Internet Explorer Web browser. The new exploit involves Gopher, a relatively discarded protocol for fetching data on remote servers that was popular before the explosive growth of the Internet.

But IE still supports the archaic protocol, which can be used to exploit a buffer overflow bug and expose a person's computer to a server running malicious code. A hacker could then seize control of the individual's computer, with full ability to access data, copy files or install programs, among other tasks.

Security experts are also warning that rogue programmers have created a new virus called Simile.D. While it's not much of a threat to computer systems, some of its technical tricks could lead to a rethinking of the principles underlying antivirus software: The program has code that not only works hard to hide the virus' presence, it also can spread to Windows and Linux computers.

If more viruses like Simile.D appear, it could leave antivirus companies with a tough trade-off. With complex viruses such as Simile.D, antivirus software has to try multiple ways of identifying the code to get high recognition rates. And while that might keep people's PCs protected from such viruses, it would also bog down most computers. On the other hand, efforts to maintain performance may let stealthy programs through.

Apple's recipe
Apple Computer released a public preview of QuickTime 6, signaling the possible end of a heated dispute between the computer maker and a licensing group that controls the use of MPEG-4 media technology. The computer maker took the unusual step of releasing the software in absence of a final licensing agreement with MPEG LA, a licensing body representing 18 patent holders that have claims on underlying MPEG-4 technology, a next-generation compression format for video and audio.

"The licensing stuff is getting worked out," Apple CEO Steve Jobs said in an interview with CNET News.com. Every 'i' is not dotted and every 't' is not crossed, but it's getting there. I have a lot of confidence it will. This is too important not to get worked out."

Apple was full of surprises this week. The company started selling a new eMac--originally a version of the iMac for the education market--to anyone who wants one. The retail version is similar to its education counterpart, but costs a little more and adds a few additional features such as a CD-rewritable drive and 56kbps modem.

Like the original iMac introduced four years ago, the new model is built around a CRT monitor. When Apple announced the original eMac, it said the computer was designed specifically for the education market and would not be sold at retail.

Apple also is expanding its retail store strategy as it considers new ways to attract Windows users to the Mac. The company is considering a number of in-store demonstrations to attract potential PC users. One strategy under consideration would involve bringing Windows PCs into the stores, where customers could presumably be shown the advantages of Macs.

Apple also plans to run Connectix VirtualPC--emulation software for running Windows on Macs--on store demo units. This too would be part of the "conversion" strategy, showing potential PC customers that they could continue using current Windows software on their new Macs.

New Net apps
More than four years after the launch of the Mozilla.org open-source project, Mozilla 1.0 is ready to browse. The group has released the software on the Web for download. Mozilla 1.0 isn't the first browser based on Mozilla code. Netscape Communications, a unit of AOL Time Warner, released Netscape 6.0 in November 2000. That release was largely judged to have been premature.

Perhaps because of the negative reaction to that first release of the Mozilla code, and because Mozilla 1.0 is targeted at software developers, the organization added years to the development process. "Mozilla 1.0 will be compared against the latest generations of commercial browsers, so Mozilla spent the time necessary to make sure this release would indeed be ready for prime time," a Netscape representative said.

Microsoft is developing new security software, code-named TrustBridge, that it hopes will make Web services and its entire product lineup more appealing to big companies. The software will allow businesses to authenticate user identities between companies and applications using Web services standards.

With TrustBridge--which will debut next year--Microsoft is attempting to solve a common problem faced by workers in big companies: too many user identifications and passwords. The company is also attempting to upstage rival Sun Microsystems, which backs a competing authorization system being defined by the Liberty Alliance Project.

Also of note
Users of the popular file-swapping program Kazaa frequently expose personal data to other network users by mislabeling the files that can be shared...eBay canceled two auctions for the new Segway Human Transporter after Segway questioned whether the auctions were bogus, but the seller said that the sale was legitimate...Hewlett-Packard is planning to stop making e-business software after the products failed to catch on in the lucrative market...A start-up is demonstrating a prototype of a flexible computer screen that's half as thick as a credit card...The Senate Judiciary Committee began examining proposed Justice Department guidelines that would give federal investigators new license to mine publicly available databases and monitor Web use...Microsoft is playing the diplomacy card in China as it tries to stamp out piracy and curb the growing popularity of open-source software...Auditors for the state of California and Oracle gave conflicting testimony over the savings associated with a controversial $95 million no-bid contract being investigated by a state legislative committee...Microsoft's MSN said Hotmail users who want to retrieve e-mail from outside accounts through the service will have to pay up starting July 16...Best Buy is changing its online privacy policy, allowing the company to combine customer information from its Web site with that collected in its stores.

Want more? Check out all this week's News.com headlines.