March 2003
Hacking and Hijacking

What's he building in there?

by Paul D. Lehrman

The most dangerous man in the music business is on his third, or maybe his fourth, company. He's been selling audio software on the Internet since he was a sophomore in high school, and his latest product looks like it's going to make at least one of his partners a functional millionaire. It's a little 2-megabyte Macintosh program that neatly circumvents any copy-protection scheme on any audio program, file or stream and lets you make a digital copy of it. It costs all of $16.

Last month, the most dangerous man in the music business turned 20. And he works for me.

Say what? Okay, I'll back up a little. First of all, he's not really the most dangerous man in the music business, although since Napster collapsed, that title has certainly been up for grabs. But he and two youthful cohorts hackers, in the original, positive sense of the term, who, by the way, have never actually all met in person are working on stuff that the record industry really, really hates. And if nothing else forces the dinosaurs of the RIAA into the new millennium, their product will do the trick.

It has an admittedly provocative name: Audio Hijack. Running under Macintosh OS X, Audio Hijack takes advantage of Apple's flexible sound architecture, Core Audio (which I wrote about last month), to intercept at the digital level any audio signal that passes through the Mac, process it and store it as a high-resolution .AIFF file. It's like the old QuickTime Audio Extraction function on steroids; instead of just working with audio CDs, it can also handle Internet streams, DVDs, MiniDiscs and external MP3 players. Whatever "protection" anyone tries to build into an audio file, Audio Hijack simply sidesteps it; if you can play it through the Mac speaker, Audio Hijack can record it.

So, where is this guy? Somewhere in a cellar in Eastern Europe, in one of the copyright-averse areas of the Far East, on a well-defended mountaintop in Idaho or sunning in a tiny Caribbean tax haven? No, he lives about a mile from me, in a dorm room at the college where I teach. He's a second-year undergraduate majoring in computer engineering. And he happens to be the systems administrator and chief technician in my music and multimedia laboratory.

The rest of this column, along with 56 more, is now available in The Insider Audio Bathroom Reader, published by Thomson Course Technology PTR.

Copyright ©2006 by Paul D. Lehrman