Secrets, secrets

In John Siracusa’s excellent article on the future of ebooks (via DF), Siracusa made reference to Cory Doctorow’s now-well-known 2004 lecture to Microsoft Research on why DRM systems always fail. The argument, in a nutshell, is this:

DRM systems are usually broken in minutes, sometimes days. Rarely, months. It’s not because the people who think them up are stupid. It’s not because the people who break them are smart. It’s not because there’s a flaw in the algorithms. At the end of the day, all DRM systems share a common vulnerability: they provide their attackers with ciphertext, the cipher and the key. At this point, the secret isn’t a secret anymore.

After giving the talk Doctorow released it in plain text on his own website which Jason Kottke in turn read aloud as an MP3, now hosted here at

Doctorow discussed so many things about cryptography that caught my attention that it was hard to keep track of them all, but among them were:

  1. The characters of Alice and Bob, the two primary players in cryptography scenarios. Generally Alice wants to send a message to Bob only to be thwarted by characters like Eve (an eavesdropper), Mallory (a malicious attacker), and many more. Amazing.

  2. The legal concept of "anticircumvention," a circular law that forbids the circumvention of any copy-protection not meant to be circumvented.

  3. Schneier’s Law, which essentially states that any person can come up with a code so devious that he or she is incapable of breaking it.

Last summer I got about two chapters through Sissela Bok’s extraordinary philosophical treatise on Secrets before I got distracted by more beach-appropriate reading. Time to pick it back up again.