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December 30th, 2012:

SATA as the New Thumb Drive

I’m giving a webinar next month to a publishers’ group on the challenges of ebook piracy. So I’ve been taking notes and making sure that things haven’t changed much over the past year. One thing that surprised me a little came through on the backchannel (that is, email comments from people who for whatever reason don’t want to use Contra’s comment system) in June, concerning the resurgence of “sneakernet” piracy. I posted a link to a piece on TechDirt indicating that only 15% of music acquisition is done through all P2P technologies together. The bulk of piracy happens between friends, off the Net, where Big Media can’t see it.

What’s interesting came in through a backchannel correspondent whom I didn’t know and haven’t heard from since: Much or even most of the in-person file trading is done by treating entire high-capacity SATA hard drives as thumb drives. He saw my post on the Thermaltake BlacX case with a 2-drive SATA toaster dock built into the top panel. He has one too and wanted to see how common they were. He and his friends swap files by copying entire SATA drives onto blank drives via toaster docks, whether built into cases or standalone. I’ve had a 1-slot Ineo toaster dock since 2010, but it gathers dust now that I have the BlacX. I do my monthly off-site backups by copying everything onto a pair of 750 GB SATA drives using the docks on the top of the BlacX. I keep the backup drives in plastic flip-top cases made precisely for that purpose.

The correspondent (known only as “Don”) pointed out that there are now 2-slot standalone toaster docks that can clone drives from one to another without requiring any connection to a computer. Here’s one example (which even looks like a toaster!) and another. They’re evidently sector copiers and do not send files individually through a file system. Don and his friends get together and watch movies while popping SATA drives into and out of the docks.

I asked him if the drives ever fail by being plugged and unplugged so often. After all, internal SATA connectors are rated for only 50 matings. (ESATA connectors are rated for 5,000.) He hasn’t seen it happen so far, and if it happens, new drives are only $60-$80.

My experience with thumb drives goes the other way: I’ve had more USB ports fail on me than thumb drives. SATA drive connectors are really just etched PC board edge connectors, which can get scratched or dirty. (This is one reason I keep my SATA backup drives in plastic boxes.) I think with careful handling, drives should go a lot longer than 50 plug/unplug cycles.

Every time I think piracy can’t get any scarier, somebody comes along and says “Boo!” even louder. I keeping wondering what’s next. My hunch: Seedboxes, which still don’t entirely make sense to me. Once I figure them out, I’ll report back in this space.