DVD Jon Hacks Apple’s Airport Express

Reports streaked across the technology wires late this week as news surfaced that Jon Lech Johansen, a Norwegian programmer, had circumvented the encryption scheme used in Apple’s AirPort Express, the latest hack at an Apple DRM.

The device, a mobile wireless unit that serves as an 802.11g gateway to the Internet for Mac users, also enables the streaming of music stored in Apple’s iTunes across a local network.

Johansen’s efforts will enable users to escape the exclusive lock on iTunes music and stream music in AAC format (used in iTunes) from other applications.

Johansen, nicknamed DVD Jon, is infamous for his crack of the digital rights management (DRM) used to protect unauthorized duplication of commercial DVD’s nearly five years ago. He posts the resulting code of his accomplishments on a Web site aptly entitled “So Sue Me.”

Representatives of Apple did not respond to requests for comment about the latest breach of Apple security and what they might do because of it.

Apple-Related Hacks on the Rise

This cracking of the AirPort Express encryption follows on the heels of several other Apple-related hacks at its DRM that, while offering additional flexibility to end users, were not helpful to the Cupertino, California-based Macintosh maker’s business plan.

In July, Real Networks stepped around Apple’s FairPlay DRM, announcing the beta release of Harmony Technology, software that would enable its users to play music purchased at stores other than Apple’s iTunes Music Store (iTMS) on Apple’s iPod.

Earlier this month, CodeWeavers announced it will include support for iTunes in a forthcoming emulation tool for running Windows applications on Linux.

Interoperability Issues

Urs Gasser, a research fellow at Harvard Law School’s Berkmann Center for Internet and Society, pointed out that the issue involved in these security breaches is interoperability, and it is a controversial one.

He told MacNewsWorld, though, that there might be little incentive currently for Apple to enable interoperability with other devices.

“For users, interoperability means that they can choose between different devices [such as the iPod or Sony’s Walkman, for instance] and use them with different services [Real’s music store, as an example]. Interoperability also matters from the viewpoint of content providers, because interoperability creates multiple distribution channels and removes market barriers,” Gasser explained.

“Other stakeholders, such as hardware producers, may have different interests, as the Apple example illustrates,” Gasser said.

Apple, by virtue of making the content it provides — iTunes — usable only with the device it makes — AirPort Express or iPod — has sought to control both sides of the equation.

‘The Mac is Mortal’

IDC PC analyst Roger Kay said these hacking episodes certainly demonstrate that the Mac is mortal.

“Apple’s respite from the attacks was based more on its not being viewed as a target of opportunity than that its software was bulletproof,” Kay said. “Apple will have to go through some of what Microsoft is going through to shore up the platform’s security,” he said.

Kay pointed out that personal computers were not designed to be hack-proof or to be mission-critical business platforms.

The EU on DRM

Gasser said he believes the DRM security and interoperability issues will remain fuzzy until both legal and social issues are resolved and copyright laws internationally become more definitive.

“The legal questions in this context are manifold and quite complex,” he said.

Gasser suggested that the EU in particular shows signs of concern over having a single, dominant proprietary standard defining the marketplace.

Gasser added: “Recently, an advisory group to the European Union (EU) Commission has identified other obstacles to the development of a DRM interoperable market. One point is particularly interesting: The group concluded that DRM must not be allowed to become a control point, for instance based on the domination of a single technology due to network effects and first-mover advantages.”

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