2006-06-13

Secure computing and NGSCB

I guess I am kinda late in covering this, but I've actually missed it untill now. Nontheless, I feel it worth a few words, if naught else for me to try to understand it myself.

There has been alot of talk about the new Microsoft & Friends system lately, and quite a few have expressed critique. Not long ago I encountered a rather hysteric site that more or less claimed that Microsoft is developing a system that will make it possible for the FBI to monitor the whole world (whyever american police would like to take over very specified international intelligence gathering was not explained however), and pointed to NGSCB.

All this prompted a few questions for me as well: What is this NGSCB thingy, what's the idea, how does it work and what is the claimed problems with it? Anything beyond the usual pointing out that "Microsof Works" is one of history's greatest oxymorons?

What is NGSCB?
The Trusted Computer Group (TNG) is an initiative or group consisting of several computer related companies, and is led by AMD, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Infineon, Lenovo, Microsoft and Sun Microsystems. The aim of the group is to implement "trusted computing", which is their concept of what is known as "trustworthy computing" (in other words, trustworthy and trusted computing are not the same, and ironically, I would have you note the difference in terminology . that the TNG trusts something, it doesn't necessarily mean it is trustworthy). Basically the idea is to achieve a high level of security for computer systems, basically through limiting what the computer can do and thus making it less vulnerable.

Basically, this is achieved though the general principle that no software can be run on the computer, unless that software has been "approved". Responsible for approvement is a combinatin of OS software and basic hardware built into the computers mother board or CPU.

Based on this group's work and strivings, Microsoft is now labouring with implementing trustworthy computing in its next generation of operative systems. Or rather, they are working on implementing uses for hardware designed by the TCG in future Windows systems.

The concept is called Next-Generation Secure Computing Base.

The idea would be that on the computer CPU is placed a so called Trusted Plattform Module (TPM), with secure storage of cryptokeys, and also a co-processor doing the encryptions and decryptions. Applications can access the cryptos on this unit.

Also, there is so-called curtained memory, and the data on the memory can only be accessed by the application to which it belongs, and no other programs.

A good initiative?
One might think that it's good to see how Microsoft, who have a long-standing history of non-reliable and buggy operative systems filled with security holes, now finally takes a step to resolve these problems. Cryptos and such must be good for personal integrity, doesn't it?

Problems
Well, first of all, those that will be cheering the most about this, will be the anti-pirates and the DRM fanatics. What it simply means is that copyrighted files can be encrypted, and the decryption key only made available to the trusted applications. It's not a problem to create files that can only be read three times, or will be deleted after one day, or only be read by the Windows Media Player.

Another very important problem is what in business is called vendor lock-in. Already today, many businesses buys the Office Suite, simply because every one else uses the Office Suite, and thus they want to be compatible. I would be quite irritating to send over something to a business partner, and he can't open it, because his software can't handle the file format.

This is a problem for concepts of free competition on the computer market, as it gives Microsoft a very unfair position in the competition.

This can be solved today, because we have stuff like Open Office that are, at least for the most part, compatible with the Office file formats. People can open a Microsoft Word file with Open Office Writer, and in most cases, unless the file formatting is too advanced, it'll work just fine. I for one use Open Office, and I have yet to find a problem with making solid word files and reading them, but on the other hand, my uses of such files might not be the most advanced.

This solution will be easily circumvented in the era of trusted computing, however. It's not a problem to make a trusted version of Office, and the output files would only be readible by trusted software. Now you can't use any other software for these files, that are not on the trusted-list.

Anyone dare to believe that Microsoft will leave their Office suite open for anyone to use?

And suddenly, Microsoft has the golden opportunity to once again engulf itself in practical monopoly on the home computer software market, choosing the trustees and business partners as they wish - only this time, their possiblities to do so will be guaranteed by hardware, built in by the manifacturer.

Room for conspiracies?
And if this is the case, what prevents Microsoft from coworking with say the RIAA to effectively try to eradicate the concept of mp3s that are not being sanctioned by the record industry, or with the MPAA to make movie files not authorised non-trusted by proxy? And if they could do this with the RIAA and MPAA, what prevents them to do similar things with the FBI, to take away access to documents that are threatening to various political interests?

Now I am not too prone to sign all these very elaborate conspiracy theories - I don't that Microsoft will cowork with security and intelligence organisations to make freedom of speech on computers impossible forever and so on, I find the thought absurd. But for me it's enough that the theoretical possibility exists, to make me feel unease.

Doesn't solve real problems
Furthermore, it is widely claimed that NGSCB is not able to solve the computer security problems that are actually the most urgent today, such as trojans and viruses, which costs businesses alot of money and efforts when they hit. To begin with, Microsoft claimed that NGSCB was not just able, but necessary, to protect Windows users from future virus attacks, but now they have backed from those assertions, admitting that NGSCB can't solve these virus problems at all.

Funny trivia
It's however fun to notice, that Microsoft had to change the name of this concept. It used to be Palladium, but due to a copyright conflict with Palladium Books, Microsoft had to change the name. Let's just hope that this, if anything, makes them realize something about the problems with the copyright concept.

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