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The week in review: Subpoenas' sour note

The recording industry's wave of subpoenas targeting file swappers may be headed for a wipeout as a major Internet service provider and a prominent congressman issue challenges.

The recording industry's wave of subpoenas targeting individual file swappers may be headed for a wipeout as a major Internet service provider and a prominent congressman issue challenges.

One of the largest broadband providers in the United States is challenging the recording industry's current campaign of targeting song swappers with a lawsuit charging that the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is violating its customers' right to privacy. Pacific Bell Internet Services (PBIS), operated by telecommunications giant SBC Communications, challenged the subpoenas served against it by the RIAA on procedural grounds, arguing that hundreds of them were served improperly. However, the group made it clear that its action was taken in order to protect the privacy of its customers.

PBIS also said the subpoenas were overly broad and that the RIAA could not group multiple requests for information on alleged file swappers under a single subpoena. The RIAA responded that it was "disappointed" with PBIS' lawsuit, saying it had contacted SBC to discuss the issue but had been "rebuked."

The RIAA is sending out close to 300 subpoenas a week to Internet service providers and colleges seeking the identities of file-swappers, according to the federal court in Washington, D.C., that is serving as a clearinghouse for the requests.

The wave of subpoenas has also drawn the critical attention of Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., who chairs the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Coleman sent a letter to the RIAA criticizing its recent spate of subpoenas and asking for detailed information on how the process is working. Coleman said the RIAA may be going too far.

"The industry has legitimate concerns about copyright infringement," Coleman said in a statement. "Yet, the industry seems to have adopted a 'shotgun' approach that could potentially cause injury and harm to innocent people who may have simply been victims of circumstance, or possessing a lack of knowledge of the rules related to digital sharing of files."

In a related move, the Federal Trade Commission issued a brief consumer warning about potential privacy concerns surrounding file-swapping software and spyware. In the latest of a series of consumer privacy alerts, the agency stopped short of warning consumers not to use free file-trading software, but it said computer users should take care to understand and prevent a range of potentially unpleasant consequences for doing so.

The alert cited the possibility that consumers might download viruses, share private or copyrighted files that could land them in legal trouble, or accidentally download mislabeled pornography.

Welcome hack
Hackers and security experts gathered in Las Vegas for the Black Hat Briefings security conference to work out what's needed to keep the Internet safe--and whether it's time for less talk and more action.

The conference's main focus was highlighted by a study of Internet security flaws that showed half of vulnerable systems remain unfixed 30 days after serious issues were revealed. The data also showed that some flaws don't completely die out over time but actually make a comeback.

The vulnerabilities exploited by the Code Red and SQL Slammer worms, for example, are allowing those threats to reassert themselves on the Internet, said Gerhard Eschelbeck, chief technology officer for vulnerability-assessment company Qualys.

"There is something going on that is bringing vulnerabilities back to life," Eschelbeck said, adding that the main theory is that companies continue to install systems that include out-of-date software.

A centralized early warning system that would alert people to these kinds of Internet flaws should be working by this fall, an official from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said. Defense contractor SRI International is expected to deliver a preliminary version of a working system--called the Global Early Warning Information System (GEWIS)--by October 2003 and a final version by March 2004.

GEWIS is intended to act as a kind of central hub that monitors sensitive areas of the Internet and alerts Department of Homeland Security officials to suspicious activity. The system will provide an Internet counterpart to the Terrorist Threat Integration Center that President Bush announced in his State of the Union address in January.

One of the highlights of the conference was a mock hacking trial held to illustrate how slippery electronic evidence can be in computer crime cases. The mock trial, s centered on whether a video-game designer had violated federal criminal laws by helping someone to break into U.S. Air Force computers.

In the government's evidence were purported e-mail messages without headers, and representations of Internet Relay Chat conversations--both of which can be altered without leaving a trace. One computer crime prosecutor with the U.S. Justice Department said he participated in the mock trial to demonstrate to the conference audience what types of records should be kept to aid in possible criminal prosecutions of electronic intruders.

Gadget madness
Dell temporarily pulled from its Web site an operating system fix for its Axim X5 handhelds after some people used the patch to do unauthorized upgrades from older versions of the OS. Dell began offering the patch Wednesday and pulled it later that day because people were hacking the patch and using it to upgrade handhelds that run Microsoft Pocket PC 2002 to Windows Mobile 2003 software for Pocket PC, the latest version of Microsoft's handheld operating system.

The patch was meant to fix performance problems that Axim owners were experiencing with new devices installed with Windows Mobile 2003. The company is exploring ways to distribute the patch to only those affected by the performance issues. The patch will be offered on CD in two to three weeks.

Dell also capped off its notebook line with a pair of mininotebooks. The Inspiron 300m and Latitude X300 will replace its Latitude X200, rounding out a refreshment of the notebook line that it initiated earlier this year.

Though the three Dell mininotebooks share a similar design--all weigh just less than 3 pounds and offer 12.1-inch screens--the new models promise more performance by incorporating a 1.2GHz Intel Pentium M processor and the ability to share components with Dell's other notebook models, a consideration for companies' IT staff.

Also of note
Internet telephone calls are fast becoming a national security threat that must be countered with new police wiretap rules, according to an FBI proposal presented quietly to regulators this month...The Securities and Exchange Commission has asked America Online to turn over documents related to its controversial bulk-subscription program, according to reports...Online music sales are expected to be weaker than analysts' earlier forecast because of overall sluggishness in the industry and lackluster digital services...In a rush to market that's reminiscent of the dot-com bubble's headiest days, a stampede of companies is following Apple Computer pell-mell into the online music sales business...Lindows.com, which makes a consumer-oriented version of the Linux operating system, introduced an application that allows computers running the Lindows OS to play commercial DVDs...McDonald's is supersizing its Wi-Fi trial with 75 of its fast-food restaurants in the New York Tri-State area getting high-speed wireless access to the Internet.