content.exe is evil

I occasionally run into people who think users should download content (e.g., music or video) packaged in an executable file, usually for the purpose of wrapping the content with where the content format does not directly support DRM (or the proponent’s particular DRM scheme). Nevermind the general badness of Digital Restrictions Management, requiring users to run a new executable for each content file is evil.

Most importantly, every executable is a potential vector. There is no good excuse for exposing users to this risk. Even if your executable content contains no malware and your servers are absolutely impenetrable such that your content can never be replaced with malware, you are teaching users to download and run executables. Bad, bad, bad!

Another problem is that executables are usually platform-specific and buggy. Users have enough problem having the correct codec installed. Why take a chance that they might not run Windows (and the specific versions and configurations you have tested, sure to not exist in a decade or much less)?

I wouldn’t bother to mention this elementary topic at all, but very recently I ran into someone well intentioned who wants users to download content wrapped in , if I understand correctly for the purposes of ensuring users can obtain content metadata (most media players do a poor job of exposing content metadata and some file formats do a poor job of supporting embedded metadata, not that hardly anyone cares — this is tilting at windmills) and so that content publishers can track use (this is highly questionable), all from a pretty cross platform GUI. A jar file is an executable Java package, so the platform downside is different (Windows is not required, but a Java installation, of some range of versions and configurations, is), but it is still an executable that can do whatever it wants with the computer it is running on. Bad, bad, bad!

The proponent of this scheme said that it was ok, the jar file could be . This is no help at all. Anyone can create a certificate and sign jar files. Even if a creator did have to have their certificate signed by an established authority it would be of little help, as malware purveyors have plenty of resources that certificate authorities are happy to take. The downsides are many: users get a security prompt (“this content signed by…”) for content, which is annoying, misleading as described above and conditions the user to not pay attention when they install things that really do need to be executable, and a barrier is raised for small content producers.

If you really want to package arbitrary file formats with metadta, put everything in a zip file and include your UI in the zip as HTML. This is exactly what P2P vendor ‘s Packaged Media File format is. You could also make your program (which users download only once) look for specific files within the zip to build a content-specific (and safe) interface within your program. I believe this describes ‘s Kapsules, though I can’t find any technical information.

Better yet put your content on the web, where users can find and view it (in the web design of your choice), you get reasonable statistics, and the don’t get fed. You can even push this to 81/19 by including minimal but accurate embedded in your files if they support it — a name users can search for or a URL for your page related to the content.

Most of the pushers of executable content I encounter when faced with security concerns say it is an “interersting and hard problem.” No, it is a stupid and impossible problem. In contrast to web, executable content is a 5/95/-1000 solution — that last number is a .

If you really want an interesting and hard problem, executable content security is the wrong level. Go work on platform security. We can now run sophisticated applications within a web browser with some degree of safety (due to Java applet and Flash sandboxes, JavaScript security). Similar could be pushed down to the desktop, so that executables by default have no more rights to tamper with your system than do web pages. is an aggressive approach to this problem. If that sounds too hard and not interesting enough (you really wanted to distribute “media”), go the web way as above — it is subsuming the desktop anyhow.

2 Responses

  1. Thanks for standing with users.

  2. […] turns even really smart technologists into disingenuous and even dangerous technology idiots (including me on occasion — the claims I dismissed in that last link, while […]

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