Security

New McAfee patent hints at a more walled-off online world

A McAfee patent hints at content filtering at the user level in order to block sites that offer pirated content.

Patents can be signs of things to come. Of course, all large companies file patents on a regular basis, and they don't always indicate upcoming products. Sometimes those patents simply show ideas that the company researchers had and that they want to protect in case they ever turn out to be good. But sometimes, patents can show what is about to be implemented, and this might just be the case in a new McAfee patent called "Detect and prevent illegal consumption of content on the internet." As the name suggests, it describes a method that the anti-malware giant may implement to help fight online piracy, and what makes it more credible than a lot of other patents is the use of dialog mockups which could well be part of its current security suite.

The patent itself describes a way that a security software could scan URLs as they are entered by the user into a web browser, email client, or anywhere on their system. These addresses would be sent to a central database server and compared with lists of suspected pirate sites, and if they are a match, then the addresses could be handled in a number of ways. One way would be to simply block access, displaying a message saying the address is not available. Another way would be to offer a warning about copyright infringement, and allow an option for the user to keep going anyway. A final method would be to instead offer legal alternatives to buy content.

This type of blocking system is hardly new, with parental software or services like OpenDNS, but up until now the copyright policy has mostly been handled by the RIAA, and MPAA along with these types of industry groups, and those companies have been pushing on Internet providers to implement checks and blocks at the ISP level. But with solutions like this, the Internet censorship could now be done at the user level instead. Obviously, this would require McAfee to be installed, but it already is one of the most popular security solutions out there. It is unlikely that this patent would be implemented as a new product; instead, it would become part of the existing solution. While a computer owner may be able to turn off this system, there are many cases when a user may not be able to do so, whether it is a minor who does not have administrative access to his computer, a school setting, public wi-fi, or any business environment which typically deploys anti-malware solutions from a central server, and employees have no access to modify behavior.

Of course, the question then becomes whether or not this is a good thing. There is no question that many parties out there would like the Internet to become a more walled off garden. Networks and traditional content creators would prefer the Internet to work like cable TV; portal sites and social networks want their users to stay in their own environments; governments want the ability to track and monitor everyone; and so on. The main issue with any type of spying or content filtering at the ISP level is that encryption such as using a VPN or Tor makes it impossible for illegal content to be detected. So having the ability to do this filtering right on the user's computer can be a useful thing. Administrators already use various solutions to do filtering as well, but typically this is done as an added solution. By implementing this feature in something like an anti-malware suite that is as popular as McAfee is, this then allows the concept to become much more widespread. By presenting alternate URLs in a friendly way, it may become an accepted method by the general public as well.

The critics on the other hand will point at the invasion of privacy, since all URLs have to be sent off to a remote server in order for this type of blocking to work. Also, content filtering never works perfectly. There are false positives, and the web changes far too quickly for any list to be always up to date. The Internet was started as an open, free and liberating platform. But as money and powers came into the equation, it has become more walled off every year, whether that is to catch criminals, monitor suspected terrorists, make more money, or prevent copyright infringement. I believe it is only a matter of time before all commercial anti-malware solutions have these types of filtering built-in. If you want to use the core features of the product, you may even one day have to leave this turned on. This would certainly please Hollywood studios.

Whether this is something you should be looking into as a business admin or IT pro is too early to say; it depends how it is implemented. But someday we may no longer need extra software to do packet filtering, should clients ask for it. This may become a well known and accepted feature of any security suite.

About

Patrick Lambert has been working in the tech industry for over 15 years, both as an online freelancer and in companies around Montreal, Canada. A fan of Star Wars, gaming, technology, and art, he writes for several sites including the art news commun...

9 comments
fw32
fw32

patent applications, not patents. Approximately six years later the US Patent Office rules, issuing fewer and fewer patents as a subject area is exhausted of "novelty", without which no application can succeed. Prior to that a "Patent applied for" notice may limit competing ideas somewhat but cannot limit actions for fear of damages which act must occur after the patent is awarded. Pirating is not protected in any case. There is neither tempest nor teapot here.

SiO2
SiO2

@NickNielson reply button broken... Actually, that isnt such a bad idea in principle - if it were applied to the major sites as law and not left to the users to administrate as they see fit. I dont want any AV nonsense using up processor cycles on a machine that spends days running Haar Cascades for image recognition, using resources pulled from webcams, off the web and a local library to create a visual recognition database. Granted this is unusual, but the principle of the machine being mine to use as I see fit isnt, and no law should be brought to change that, leaving it to the ISPs or the content providers to administrate it properly. They dont... And the ISPs dont have the right to restrict access to content either, so really it should fall to the likes of YouTube and Facebook to secure the domains they operate in as a legal requirement. Software running on their end, and/or in the browser itself as a part of terms of service is perfectly acceptable, that way it only becomes an issue when I use those services and doesnt affect me if I choose not to.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

well it's their kit. Me do it on mine, no thanks. Then I thought, BYOD...

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

Technology implemented under this patent would fully encapsulate the end user in a bubble of information bounded by government/corporate rules. This would ultimately allow for the separation of each person from every other...or for the imposition of national groupthink. In either case, I fear for our descendants.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

It's about somebody else controlling access to information or controlling how that information is presented.

SiO2
SiO2

as if it would be a legal requirement to install it on your computer before using it. Just for starters, good luck with making me install it on a handbuilt custom Linux kernel used for research and development... And good luck making anyone install it on a phone for that matter. Windows was always a walled garden; McAfee are only making it more so for the limited lifespan of a PC browser. This is little more than the twitching of a dying organism.

public_domain
public_domain

ditto on that. Leave it to the corporations that want to dominate own and control the internet to dominate own and control freedom of speech and expression. I see this as a stepwise process to create a very expensive and restrictive tollgate. I remember when the internet was owned by the public.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

It wouldn't even be part of the AV suite. I see it installed separately, required as part of the terms of service for the major sites (e.g. Youtube, Facebook, etc.). And since even Linux users browse the web...

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