Dr. Dawg

Guest post: "trusted computing" and Microsoft dirty tricks

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paranoia.jpg

Sometimes those creatures in the illustration are real. An email from my friend Gödel Noodle:

Thanks for participating in the SOPA/PIPA strike! I’ve been following this since late November or so with acute nausea. I’m a hermit who doesn’t really know anybody, but my mom has several friends in the U.S. and I got her to mail them all about SOPA back in early December. I’m hoping some of them write or call their congresspeople.

Even if we defeat all this, the biggest spectre on the horizon for me is “trusted computing.” Look at this when you have time, if you’re not familiar with it, and this.

Pay particular attention to the “Criticism” section on Wikipedia. Also scroll down to #11 (“How can TC be abused?”) in the second link, and read the third paragraph. This FAQ was written in 2003, but it seemed like a bit of a paranoid fantasy back then—as does much of what Richard Stallman has often warned us about over the years.

Recently there was another victory for the bad guys on this issue, however. Over time I’ve gone from eyerolling cynicism to genuine fear about what the future holds.

Microsoft has struck a deal with a processor manufacturer (ARM) to ensure that devices can be made that allow only Windows 8 to be installed on them. The hardware rejects any attempt to install anything else (like GNU/Linux). There is certainly something positive about this: your BIOS (the low-level system software that loads Windows, OSX, GNU/Linux, etc.—although, technically, the new one will be called a “UEFI” instead—can check that the operating system it is about to load is clean and uncorrupted, and refuse to load it otherwise. This is something virus scanning software simply can’t do because virus scanners are loaded after the operating system is loaded—and by then it’s sometimes too late. So this will, admittedly, help to protect our computers from malware.

In principle, it’s actually a fantastic idea. You could install a clean operating system on your computer, and “lock it in” so that if it ever became infected or corrupted, the computer would refuse to boot until you fixed it. If you decided to switch to a different operating system (or add one, or remove one), you would “unlock” it, make the desired changes, and then lock it again. Locking and unlocking the system would require a unique password, and malware would obviously have no access to that password (likely you’d have it written down in a paper manual). You could also choose to leave it unlocked, if you preferred, in which case your computer would work the old-fashioned way: the way they work today.

This is how it was supposed to work. The problem is that Microsoft decided—for only ARM processors for today (but perhaps Intel and AMD processors tomorrow)—that they actually have no obligation to trust the user with the keys to this system. In fact, if they don’t give you the keys, the only software you can run on “your” hardware is what Microsoft gives you permission to run. If you attempt to run something which Microsoft has not approved, the hardware itself will simply refuse to obey you (at which point, you would inevitably begin to wonder just who paid for this device anyway: you or Microsoft?). And by extension, if they control the software, they can control the content you consume, create, or attempt to distribute too.

Microsoft didn’t reveal this part about keeping the keys away from users until recently, but everyone hoped that they wouldn’t try something like this—particularly after all the trouble they got into in the European Union over their anti-competitive practices in the past. But, surprise, surprise.

And this news follows on the heels of another disconcerting announcement—that Microsoft will be able to uninstall software from your Windows 8 computer remotely, without your consent.

You can find more information about “trusted computing” as well as a petition at the Free Software Foundation.

And more at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

I’ve always wanted to be immortal, but in some ways I’m glad I probably won’t live long enough to read the first edition of the Newspeak Dictionary from a tiny, grey cubicle in the Ministry of Truth.

UPDATE: Noodle adds: Cory Doctorow gave a brilliant speech recently in Berlin that nicely tied together SOPA, PIPA, trusted computing, and what he calls the “coming war on general-purpose computing.”

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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on January 20, 2012 1:47 PM.

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