Legal team scrambles to suppress MobiTV addresses shared in the clear

Once again, a string of characters that purports to be secret intellectual property turned up in the clear, and its public dissemination has triggered more efforts by its owner's legal team than, evidently, by its security team.

As early as last November, a user in Sprint's mobile phone forums who was ostensibly giving a positive user review for a certain model of handset, happened to share a URL he discovered which would enable users of that phone to bypass the MobiTV front end -- and the monthly charges attributed to it -- and access its lineup of streaming mobile TV channels for free.

That URL leads to an XML file that lists the addresses whereby any browser, mobile or desktop, can access the Real Time Streaming Protocol feeds from any channel in MobiTV's lineup for Sprint customers. Apparently the mobile browser is programmed to access this file in order to determine where channels are located, though the file is transmitted in the clear.

Since that time, the address has been widely propagated, though there's evidence that forums where it was posted have been edited, with the including threads removed. Yesterday, the proprietor of one mobile phone discussion forum, Howard Chui of Howard Forums, let his users know that his site may become unavailable, after the general counsel for MobiTV gently threatened that he'd report his site to ICANN if he didn't take action to remove the offending threads.

A citation on Howard Forums from an e-mail from MobiTV's corporate counsel reads that the URL in question "is not publicly available, nor is it posted anywhere on our website for viewers to access. The only way to access the links is through this url, and the only way to obtain this url is through hacking/debugging."

And a letter sent Tuesday to Howard Forums by MobiTV general counsel Andrew P. Missan, obtained by Broadband Reports (PDF available here), characterizes the URL itself as one of MobiTV's trade secrets.

"MobiTV considers Howard Forums' continued reproduction, public display, and distribution of this information and links to constitute violation and infringement of MobiTV's intellectual property rights, including, without limitation, its copyright, trademark, and trade secret rights. We are concurrently contacting Howard Forums' host and registrar regarding this matter."

It actually isn't known what measures were necessary to obtain the secret URL, though Chui argues that they had to be something less than hacking. In a citation of one of his responses to MobiTV, Chui writes, "How is it not publicly available? Anyone with a computer can view the file that has all the url's on it. It's not like someone stole this information from your business and posted it. It's available on your site for anyone to read. How is that protecting your intellectual property? Is there really no security in place to prevent this?"

And in a post to his readers yesterday, Chui argues that by increasing awareness of the easy availability of the streaming addresses, his site may have been doing MobiTV's content providers a valuable service.

"I'm sure MobiTV's content providers would be very interested to know that MobiTV is broadcasting their intellectual property while taking such measures to protect it," Chui wrote. "It's like they're a movie theater with see through walls. If you walk by you can see what's going on but they don't want you to."

As Broadband Reports writes this morning, "Calling it any kind of substantive hack is an epic reach, and legal action is absurd given the URL is now in the Internet wilds. MobiTV's attempt to get HowardForums shut down will only result in their own security missteps getting fifty times the attention they would have otherwise."

BetaNews has contacted MobiTV's legal counsel for comment, which may yet be forthcoming.

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