The latest in anti-piracy efforts: keystroke recognition

Two software firms team to use new, advanced "biometric" identification technology to lock up online music against would-be pirates.

John Borland Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Borland
covers the intersection of digital entertainment and broadband.
John Borland
3 min read
It's not quite a retinal scan, but a pair of software firms teamed today to use new, advanced "biometric" identification technology to lock up online music against would-be pirates.

Start-up Musicrypt.com and Net Nanny Software, best known for its Web filtering programs, said they are joining forces to create software that can identify individual music

Gartner analysts Jackie Fenn and John Pescatore say the strategy by digital content creators of using keystroke recognition to protect against piracy contains a couple of holes.

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listeners by the way they tap out letters on computer keyboards. This information would be used to protect songs against unauthorized distribution and use.

The companies want music labels or online retailers to insert the technology into downloaded music, so that only a person who buys a given song would be able to play it on a computer. Identifying the buyer by these keystroke patterns is far more secure than using passwords, which can be passed on to thousands of people, the companies say.

"What we're doing with (this software) is making the user the key," said John Heaven, Musicrypt's chief executive.

That might sound good to the record companies, which are scrambling to find high-tech ways to guard online music against widespread digital piracy. But analysts say there's a big question as to whether music listeners--who are used to unrestricted use of the music they buy--would ever accept such technology.

"Technologies like Net Nanny can have at best zero value to the consumer and at worst can have negative value," said Eric Scheirer, an analyst with Forrester Research.

The announcement takes the fight against online piracy toward a technological level that is more theory than practice.

Recording companies and technology firms are looking for ways Napster wildfire to protect songs against distribution to millions of unauthorized listeners on the Web or through services such as Napster or Gnutella. So-called digital rights management companies have created rival schemes for protecting songs, often using complicated encryption systems that make it difficult to unlock a song without a password, or "key," or by limiting the number of times a song can be copied.

Some of these companies have discussed graduating to biometric technologies. Biometrics uses individual characteristics such as fingerprints, voice patterns or even the "prints" of an eye's retina or iris as unique, personal identifiers. Companies such as Sony already have created computer security devices using this kind of technology.

Net Nanny's BioPassword software takes a different tack than most, using the way a person types as an identifier--much as voice recognition software uses patterns of speech. The software has an average 98 percent accuracy rate in recognizing individuals, company representatives said.

Less precise, but easy to use
Analysts who follow the biometrics industry say the keystroke technology is less accurate than other technologies such as fingerprinting or retinal scans, but it makes up for that weakness in its relative ease of use. Using the

Samir Nanavati
Partner, International Biometric Group
Discussing the potential of biometrics.
software is no more difficult than typing ordinary passwords, International Biometric Group partner Samir Nanavati said.

And even if it's weaker than more science fiction-like technologies, keystroke identification is still a better way to secure content than simply using passwords, Nanavati added.

"I would say that biometrics in general are ready for the consumer level," the analyst said. "I wouldn't have said that two years ago. It would have been a disaster then."

But in the music market, there's little evidence that buyers want or need this kind of security. Entertainment consumers are used to being able to use their music at whatever player they choose, whenever they choose, and with no more steps than inserting a tape or disc and pushing play.

The embarrassing market flops of protection technologies such as the Divx DVD player have shown how skeptical consumers can be of any technology that restricts their ability to use products.

Net Nanny and Musicrypt will have to prove that they are almost invisible before they will be widely accepted, analysts say. And that could be tough. The system will require computers to have the free Musicrypt software installed to unlock songs, the companies said.

"It's very difficult for any of these companies to articulate this in a way that makes it palatable to consumers," Forrester's Sheirer said. "This has to be transparent and seamless to get over the first consumer hurdle."