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Who do you trust?

In its current state, the trusted-computing initiative doesn’t improve security.

When you think about computer security, things like antivirus software, firewalls, and spam removal tools probably come to mind. A new trusted-computing initiative from the Trusted Computing Platform Alliance (TCPA) is being touted as a mechanism to improve computer security. However, unless changes are made to its current design, TCPA will not improve computer security at all. Instead, it will only take control of your computer away from you.

The construct of trusted computing is not a new one and, in fact, references to it trace back to the 1970s. Various forms of trusted computing are the norm today in government agencies. TCPA members include Intel, Microsoft, HP, and IBM.

The current trusted-computing design coming from the TCPA includes both hardware and software components acting in concert. The hardware part of TCPA currently consists of a smart chip, which is attached to the computer motherboard. Current plans for second-generation TCPA hardware are for the initial smart chip to eventually be integrated in the CPU of your computer.

In present form, when you start up your PC, the TCPA chip verifies the hardware on your machine against a table of approved hardware (e.g., video card, CD-ROM drive). It then inspects all the software you have loaded on the machine and verifies that it is on the approved list. All approved software must be signed and must have an approved serial number.

If you change the hardware or software configuration on your machine, it will then need to be validated again by the trusted authority (i.e., the hardware or software company). Once the hardware chip has approved your configuration, it hands control of your machine over to a software module. The current TCPA implementation of the software component to support trusted computing is Microsoft’s Palladium.

Palladium has a secure kernel (known as the Nexus) that rides in physical memory separate from Windows. It works in concert with Notarized Computing Agents (NCAs)–also known as applications–and the hardware-based smart chip to provide access only to applications, data, and content that you are authorized to see.

As it is currently designed, TCPA and Palladium do nothing to prevent or reduce security risks, such as denial-of-service attacks. If you use a TCPA/Palladium-enabled machine, you are just as apt to receive a virus or spam via Microsoft’s Outlook as you are without it. The TCPA initiative does nothing to secure personal computing other than controlling what you do with your machine.

By now, you might be thinking that if you want to retain control over your computer(s) that you will merely skip purchasing systems that are TCPA/Palladium-enabled. You may have little choice in the matter.

Sen. Fritz Hollings of South Carolina has introduced a bill called the Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act (CBDTPA) in Congress. If the CBDTPA becomes law in present form, it will mandate that all consumer electronics sold in the United States be required to contain TCPA functionality.

While the CBDTPA is pending, hardware and software that is TCPA-enabled has already begun arriving in the marketplace. Some parts of Microsoft’s Windows XP and Xbox are already TCPA-enabled while IBM ThinkPad laptops purchased after May of 2002 contain smart chips. Moreover, Intel plans to include TCPA smart-chip technology in the generation of chips it will ship following the Pentium 4, which the company expects to do by the latter half of 2003.

Abusive computing?

As it is currently designed, TCPA leaves a lot of room for potential abuse on a number of fronts. William Arbaugh, one of TCPA’s inventors, has even had second thoughts about the potential misuse of TCPA-enabled systems.

The first likely application that comes to mind as a primary candidate for TCPA-enabled systems is Digital Rights Management (DRM)-enabled software (e.g. audio and video players). Microsoft has already issued an update to its Media Player that requires users to agree to forthcoming antipiracy measures, including remote deletion of unauthorized files from the users’ hard disk.

TCPA-enabled applications will securely contact their owners to determine what you can and cannot do with their applications. In addition, vendors, at their discretion, will update the rules that govern how you will use their TCPA-enabled application.

For example, suppose you purchased a movie player from an approved TCPA-software company. The player would install properly since the provider would have a record of your purchasing it. But, then, the software provider, via rules that the player would securely and remotely access, would control what movies you could watch, for how long, and on what devices.

TCPA also is an enabler for other types of restrictive applications. For example, a word processing program might be TCPA-enabled so that it would only allow you to share documents with certain users or restrict others from receiving documents that you might send them. Control of your word processing program could be tightly governed by remote rules that are applied to your computer without your knowledge.

Likewise, TCPA technologies can be applied to things like e-mail applications and Web browsers. The rules provided by the trusted authority could control who you could exchange e-mail with and which Web sites you could visit. TCPA technologies will also likely be applied to electronic-payment systems.

TCPA technologies could also be exploited in other ways. Larger software companies could use the technology to prevent you from loading competing applications by enforcing rules on your computer or by preventing output from competing applications to be used on your system.

One area of particular concern is that TCPA-enabled systems could be built to undermine the General Public License (GPL) that is distributed with quite a bit of free and open-source software. The process required to obtain TCPA approval is an expensive one, which could detrimentally affect the free and open-source communities. Moreover, developers modifying GPL’d software–which is permitted under the license–could not distribute it to others without TCPA approval.

Perhaps one of the most troubling ways TCPA might be used is to remotely control what you have on your hard disk. Rules could be put in place to not only remove unapproved software, but also documents and e-mail that are not agreeable to the rules of those controlling your machine. TCPA technologies could also be used to closely track what you do with your system, including your online activity.

If TCPA is implemented in current form along with passage of the CBDTPA, the potential for misuse of the technology is quite likely. This in turn could adversely affect the economy by allowing some companies to gain an advantage over others while the technology could also lead to further erosion of privacy and civil liberties.

Secure computing?

Conversely, if the design of TCPA technologies were altered in a way that gave the user total control over usage, then TCPA might provide some tangible benefits. For example, if you were able to control activation and deactivation of TCPA technologies, you might turn on TCPA while you access a secure Web site to make a purchase or access your back account.

However, as it stands now, we don’t know if the design of TCPA will remain the same or if it will change over time. In addition, we do not yet know how TCPA applications will be implemented. Thus, consumers and businesses that use computers should be very concerned about where TCPA and the CBDTPA are headed.

Consumers and businesses should certainly stay abreast of TCPA and the CBDTPA and make friends and colleagues aware of them. In addition, there are enough concerns presented by the Senate bill and the technology itself that many consumers and businesses may wish to voice their concerns.

Those wishing to offer their opinions can write or send e-mail to their senators or Senator Fritz Hollings, sponsor of the CBDTPA. In addition, concerns might also be e-mailed to the TCPA or sent to other hardware and software providers.

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