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Serious problems with Live Streams

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This is interesting from the Windows Secrets news letter. Basically you install some software to watch a live streaming event and compromise your computer, and possibly blow your limit if you have a tariff limit on your broadband. I recommend you sign up for the free newsletter


For those who want a bit more to see if it is important:

Many people who watched live streaming video of the inauguration of U.S. President Barack Obama on Jan. 20 may not realize that their PC was used to send the video to other PCs, too.

Clicking "yes" to a CNN.com dialog box installed a peer-to-peer (P2P) application that uses your Internet bandwidth rather than CNN's to send live video to other viewers.

The P2P application is called Octoshape Grid Delivery and is managed by Octoshape ApS, a company based in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Web surfers who visit CNN.com and select a live video stream for the first time see in their browsers a dialog box, shown in Figure 1, saying, "This site requires the Octoshape Grid Delivery enhancement for Adobe Flash Player." The dialog box doesn't appear when playing an ordinary video file, only when starting a live feed. (Feeds labeled LIVE typically appear in the upper-right corner of CNN.com's home page during business hours.)

The article is quite long but worth reading as not only effects CNN but has been used in Europe already. The compromise system comes from the fact that the software is not CNN specific but a visit to any site with streaming vid could activate it. And how long do you think the bad guys are going to ignore a P2P network?

  • Deceptive marketing. Octoshape's dialog box warns that playing a live video "requires" installing new software. Despite this, however, if you click "no" to Octoshape, you can play the feed using the streaming video capability built into Windows Media Player or Adobe's Flash Player, although possibly with less fidelity. Small links to choose one of the two standard formats appear in the bottom-right corner of the playback window.

    The Octoshape EULA doesn't become available until after the user is required to select "yes" or "no" to install the app. But even if the EULA appeared before the buttons, burying in legalese the commandeering of a person's PC isn't my idea of "informed consent." Only a clear explanation of the repurposing of a PC's bandwidth — in on-screen text, readable without scrolling — is an adequate way to inform users of such a technique.

  • Cost-shifting to ISPs. CNN's use of Octoshape might make live feeds look somewhat smoother to end users, but the primary benefit is a reduction in cost to the cable news network.

    The TorrentFreak blog cites an unnamed insider as saying 30% of CNN's live feed traffic was served from individual PCs and not the network's own servers. That saves CNN big time on bandwidth. But the cost doesn't just disappear — it's shifted to ISPs.

    Brett Glass, the owner of Lariat.net, a small ISP in Laramie, Wyoming, testified before the FCC last year on cost-shifting. Bandwidth, he explains, can cost hundreds of dollars per Mbps per month to providers in rural areas like his. "CNN is setting up a server on the ISP's network without permission or compensation," he told me in an interview. "CNN's not a charity, in fact it's doing a lot better than some ISPs."

  • Costs to end users. Many ISPs around the world restrict how much bandwidth users can consume. Those providers charge by the megabyte for any traffic above that level. Users who installed Octoshape's app and served traffic upstream as well as down may get an unpleasant surprise in their next monthly bill. Octoshape anticipated this in the company's EULA by saying, "You are responsible for any telecommunication or other connectivity charges incurred through the use of the Software."

    In addition, ISP terms of service usually prohibit customers from using their Internet connection to host a server. The FCC ruled last year against Comcast, a major U.S. ISP, on peer-to-peer restrictions, as explained in an Ars Technica article. But other legal issues on home-grown servers remain unsettled.

    (In an interview, Comcast spokeswoman Jenny Moyer declined to address CNN's use of Octoshape, saying, "I don't think it's anything we're going to be able to comment on at this time.")

  • Ludicrous license terms. Anyone who reads Octoshape's EULA after clicking "yes" to install the app finds that they've agreed to some hilarious prohibitions:

    "You may not collect any information about communication in the network of computers that are operating the Software or about the other users of the Software by monitoring, interdicting or intercepting any process of the Software. Octoshape recognizes that firewalls and anti-virus applications can collect such information, in which case you not are allowed to use or distribute such information."

  • Company policies on outbound traffic. No one has suggested that Octoshape is doing anything other than relaying live video streams to other PCs. In a blog comment, Johan Ryman, Octoshape manager of strategic partnership and sales, assures users that the app is well-behaved and stops consuming upstream bandwidth within five seconds of a live stream being closed.

    Many companies, however, have policies against sending data outside their LAN. How many CIOs will be comfortable with an app that sends unknown information to random PCs?

  • Use of Flash's install mechanism. Octoshape is the only outside company that's allowed to download software using the Adobe Flash Player's so-called Express Install feature, according to a Flash Magazine technical analysis. Express Install is used by Adobe to push updates and other software, such as Acrobat Connect and the Adobe AIR runtime.

    IT admins who'd like to turn off the installation of Octoshape within their companies could disable Flash's update mechanism, as explained in Adobe TechNote 16701594. But doing so would disable all auto-updates from Adobe, not just Octoshape.

  • Security vulnerabilities. The Octoshape app is supported by an established company and is not any kind of virus or worm. However, most programs have bugs, and Octoshape specifically communicates with its own servers and other PCs in ways that are not apparent to end users.

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