Trusted Computing: If you don’t know what it is, you should

Since today marks another step towards the next generation of Windows, we thought it would make sense to post an item about Trusted Computing, which will be supported by Vista and which will likely be supported by the hardware many if not most people are buying by the time Vista is released.

If you’re not familiar with Trusted Computing (TC) then you should probably read the WikiPedia article on TC. To sum it up (crudely) for those not yet convinced it’s worth clicking the hyperlink: By using hardware-based security/encryption the goal of TC is to tightly control what you can/can’t do with the data that comes into, goes out of, and runs on your computer. Much of this is good for the user, it has the potential to protect your data from being intercepted/stolen by others, by being tampered with/destroyed by viruses, etc. But, some of it is potentially very bad for the user. Most notably bad (as far as most people are concerned) is that it allows for and therefore almost encourages anti-competitive/anti-consumer behavior. It has the ability to effectively prevent reverse-engineering, since all the decryption occurs in hardware where the keys can’t be easily intercepted. The practice of reverse engineering can be noble or ignoble, it can seek to make something more useful to all (while injuring no one), or it can seek to prevent vendors/content owners from enforcing their rights. The noble side of reverse engineering has been profoundly important to innovation over the last decade, I shudder to think where we’d be if TC was in place 10-15 years ago. The good form of reverse engineering has allowed users to run various office software packages to read/write Microsoft Word documents, it has allowed Linux users to interoperate with Windows file servers (via Samba), it has allowed Trillian/Gaim/and other multi-service IM clients to be released, and taken to the extreme, TC could allow web browsers to completely refuse to operate with unapproved operating systems or operating systems running any unapproved software. In addition, because file contents can be in encrypted & practically irreversible formats, and because product licensing is strongly protected, and because the trend has been towards a subscription model for software purchases, you could suddenly find that you are perpetually forced into yearly software upgrades, otherwise the data you created/own becomes inaccessible to you (until you renew). There’s more to the down side having to do with your being effectively a third-party to your computer under the TC model, and you can read more about that elsewhere.

I’d recommend the following Electronic Frontier Foundation article which nicely summarizes the topic, and offers a potential change in the TC implementation that might go a long way to protecting all our rights. The future of TC may turn out to be quite nice, it may be that suitable public pressure will naturally ensure that all the vendors act responsibly, reasonably, fairly. But, it seems safe to say that they won’t unless they feel a persistent public pressure to do so, and the more people who know about TC (the good and the bad) the better.

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