When numbers are outlawed, only outlaws will have numbers


Via Mark Frauenfelder, I came across this fascinating little video that informs me that being in possession of a particular number is now illegal in the US and why. I cannot tell you the full number because I don’t know it but apparently knowing it and even writing it on a piece of paper could land me in prison. All I know is that the number is a prime number that has 1419 digits that begin with the sequence 85650789657397829.

Why is this number illegal? Because its binary representation is that of a computer program that enables a computer to circumvent a DVD’s copyright protection. Distribution of such programs is illegal under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998. The Wikipedia article states that the act “criminalizes production and dissemination of technology, devices, or services intended to circumvent measures (commonly known as digital rights management or DRM) that control access to copyrighted works.”

It turns out that it is not the only illegal number around. Who knew?

Comments

  1. John Morales says

    Illegal by itself is too vague without reference to its applicable jurisdiction.

    More to the point, it’s its instantiation as a computer program* which is illegal.

    * One specific to a particular architecture.

  2. says

    Numberphile has a take on illegal numbers. I find the idea of numbers being “illegal” as ridiculous as legislating pi, or criminalizing knowledge (e.g. trying to ban the Terrorist’s Handbook, the US’s idiotic attempt to label and equate PGP encryption to a “munition” or bomb). Governments can only criminalize action, not what exists or what people know. Even intent isn’t criminal unless and until something happens.

    Marcus Ranum (#1) –

    867-5309 is also illegal.

    If any song with a phone number should be banned, it’s “Beechwood 45789”. Cripes, the Carpenters were awful.

  3. larry504 says

    Many years ago I worked in customer service for a regional phone company. The number 867-5309 was withdrawn from use in all the area codes we serviced due to prank calls. When that number was pulled up in any of our internal databases it was simply listed as belonging to Jenny. It took about 20 years from the time the song came out for the number to be finally released for use again.

  4. Numenaster says

    I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of that song, considering that my given name is really Jenny and I was in high school in Portland at the time that the Portland band recorded it. The best joke I made with it was telling someone that all of us Jennys took turns passing the number around to spread the burden.

  5. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    Illegal by itself is too vague without reference to its applicable jurisdiction.

    More to the point, it’s its instantiation as a computer program* which is illegal.

    * One specific to a particular architecture.

    If you want to be a little more specific, I think the proper phrasing is this: Distribution of this number, especially when the distribution is associated with a hint as to the function of this number when interpreted as a computer program on a particular computer hardware and software, is in violation of US law. Possession of this number may be illegal too – not sure offhand.

    I find the idea of numbers being “illegal” as ridiculous as legislating pi, or criminalizing knowledge (e.g. trying to ban the Terrorist’s Handbook, the US’s idiotic attempt to label and equate PGP encryption to a “munition” or bomb).

    Note that copyright and patent, in conjunction with digital media, does require making illegal distribution of certain numbers. In the end, that’s all an “mp3” file is.

    PS: Of course, we can have another discussion about the ridiculousness of modern copyright and patent law, but I still believe that copyright and patent in some form is a good thing.

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