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Biometric DRM is 'empowering' says iVue maker

Finger on the future

How do you understand a man who wants us to use biometrically generated keys before we can listen to our music?

Gary Brant's company VeriTouch will soon be marketing a media player called iVue, which will ensure that no music is ever shared again. The iVue uses your fingerprint to generate a unique key when you buy music online, and you can only play that music back once your fingerprint has been verified by the machine using this key. It's a brilliant idea!

As it turns out we simply couldn't get indignant or righteous with Gary over his quixotic adventure, and that's not just because he's a very nice man. It's because over five hundred Register readers spelled out exactly how they might use it, when we asked.

"I'm guessing there wasn't one in favor?" Gary asked us, a bit nervously.

Well, no. Not one.

We began by reading a typical, but very succinct comment that we received - this one from reader Tim Everson.

"Bit of a no brainer really, the choice between an MP3 player that plays tunes, and an MP3 player that records biometric information and restricts my ability to transfer MP3s between devices," writes Tim. "I see no better way of ensuring that a media device won't sell apart from smearing it with excrement before packing it. "

"Oh. I've read worse ones than that," said Gary, laughing. He hasn't had one positive email either. But you might correctly guess that some other people, and you can probably even guess who they are, could be really interested in the idea.

Brant thinks that the iVue will be as revolutionary as the Walkman, which knocked him out when he first saw it in 1979.

"I've tried to read as many replies as I can and as many pages of what people are feeling about this. But I believe this technology can really empower the end user," he says. "You'll have the ability to lock up and secure stuff in this digital diary. That's a part of it I would really like to see brought into the light - the Victorian Diary in the padlock, the journal in a leather case that held the secrets of the owner."

Evoking the era when piano legs were covered with fabric because their wanton erotic displays of wooden-leggyness might upset the stability of the Empire, and when adolescents were forced to wear metal contraptions which would inhibit masturbation, hardly seems to set the right tone for a new era of empowerment, we thought. (We'll come to the coercion aspect of this whole biometric DRM proposition in due course.)

Machines, for better or worse

But back to the original question. How can you understand this mind? It's simple really - it just depends on how you define the problem. Gary Brant's iVue is a good solution to a particular problem: it's just that many people identify the problem quite differently. The two have very different solutions. As your reporter sees it, music is created to be shared, so there's little sense in finding technological solutions that try to stop people sharing. The real problem is that the artists aren't being compensated, so rather than engaging in futile attempts to make people not share music, something we have always done and will not stop doing, the much simpler task of compensating the artist can then be addressed.

Only this, much simpler problem doesn't really have a technological answer. It requires a social and economic solution, with perhaps a little bit of dumb technology there to help us add up the sums quicker. Fortunately we're good at social solutions. Not great ones admittedly, and they can all be better, but collectively we do muddle through, once we can all agree on what the problem is.

In fact Gary agrees that finding a way of compensating the artists is the real problem.

"Absolutely," he said. "That's the top of the heap challenge."

(We told you he was a decent chap, didn't we?)

Gary isn't familiar with the compensation schemes being discussed, which would levy the price of a pint of beer on us every now and again, so we can get back to where we were: an equitable arrangement for the artists. It all makes sense, in this light. So getting him up to speed is important, because as a potential manufacturer, he can make things that are really useful to us, if he's on the right lines, and as we'll see, he nearly is.

But to return to where we started. Gary is not a mystery: he's simply following a very familiar trail blazed by many techno-utopians before him, who believe that technology itself can light a path out of our mess. In this respect he's no different from Newt Gingrich - who advocated giving laptops to the homeless - or George Gilder or Esther Dyson, or today's weblog blowhards, all of whom have employed similar empowerment rhetoric. Only there's no magic in these machines, and once we lose this idea that they can do something for us that we can't do for ourselves, our problems are much easier to identify and solve.

(As a consequence, we might have better machines, too).

iVue - your digital entertainment sic future?

I want an iVue!

So here's what iVue will look like. It's a small Linux box with a 120 GB hard disk and a 1200 by 800 resolution screen in 16x9 format, according the CEO. (This sounds a bit fishy, and you'll be wondering, like we were, where he's sourced such components. Maybe it's not too far-fetched, as similar form-factor PCs like the OQO are almost on the market; but it does suggest that it's more next year's product than this year').

You'll be able to run a shell - but you won't be able to move anything on or off the device if VeriTouch's encryption technology works. This took two years to develop and relies on a 21,000 bit key. Break that! says Gary. (We paraphrase here).

The user submits a fingerprint when first shopping at an online music store. This is then verified by the service provider and you're OK'd to listen to the music you just bought. You don't need to authenticate each song individually, Gary stresses, you can authenticate hundreds in one go, very easily. But you must pawprint every song before you can hear it.

(Several readers with Eczema have pointed out this a real nuisance, by the way. If you have Eczema only part of you finger rubs off on the sensor. The rest is flakey bits. So like the FBI, you only get a lousy fingerprint. And unlike the cryptographic certainties factored into Veritouch's system, it seems that skin loss sufferers are un-obligingly random.

"How much is missing from which finger depends on which fingers disliked the shaving foam that morning," says one reader, which may be far more than you wanted to know, but still illustrates the point that biometric security technology has some challenges ahead of it, if we are to take it seriously.

As one reader asks, "Will I be able to get a non-DRM device on account of my medical condition? It'll be interesting to find out what the Disability Discrimination Act makes of that one."

Quite so, and we're shoulder to shoulder with you here. Technology that can't cope with something as commonplace as a skin condition is problematic: iVue must work for everyone.

Brant nevertheless insists that anonymity can be preserved in this process. He claims that unlike watermark technology, there's nothing that links your identity and that of the fingerprint. We seem to remember something like a credit card being involved somewhere in this transaction, as this music is not being given away freely, and this is usually how you pay for stuff online, and not through an anonymity broker (of which there are right now, er none) - so we're not sure how well his argument holds up.

On the iVue, there is no slot for removable media, and no ports. It's entirely wireless - GPRS, Bluetooth, and 802.11b/g flavors of Wi-Fi. So it's a phone as well, if a bit of a dorky one. That's quite impressive, we said, in fact - that's great! Your reporter told Brant that he would happily buy one - if only the fingerprint technology wasn't there. That's because it's very close to something we dreamt up here - the Bluepod device - that a lot of people also dreamt up at the same time, in an odd kind of collective hallucination. It's a pocket-sized device than you can share music with, socially. We think the demand for such a thing would be quite high. You seem to think so, too. Given ubiquitous, high bandwidth wireless and a fair copyright scheme, a Bluepod user could walk down the street and share and collect as music as they wanted to hear. The artists would get paid, and we'd be happy. Which is a good thing.

So why has Veritouch come very close to making this perfect device, only to turn away at the last minute and run into a wall instead? It has everything we want, except the one function that makes it useful. Why has he done this?

Coercion and control

Clearly, as we agreed, you can't change thousands of years of human behavior. People share music because it's a natural thing to do, and we communicate a lot of useful stuff with our music and it's very important to us. Will we wake up one day and see iVue's magic, or will more laws be needed for iVue's to work as predicted?

"Emphatically, no" he says.

How will we accept iVue, then?

"Believe me fingerprint scanning is becoming our lives," he says, turning to his own technology first as justification. "It's part of your driving license, it's part of your passport, this is an early adoption of it." He might be right, but is that national security compromise about to be willingly applied to basics, like enjoying music? Our mailbag suggests otherwise. His mailbag too.

Nor is applying a fingerprint to play your morning music strange either, he reckons.

"There are changes in direction that at first seem incredible. When the Wright Brothers first flew their plane I'm sure people were surprised when they witnessed that."

Given all this, he's pretty sanguine about his prospects. Heroically so.

"At the end of the day, you think you can have a good idea, but then God can tap you on the shoulder and say 'no dice'", he says. ®

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