The Microsoft Secure PC project is rolling out, and could be with us as early as the next major version of Windows, Longhorn. The whole idea of a computer that just plain won't let you steal other people's stuff is of course a tricky one (why would you buy it?), as we've previously indicated here, and here, so the ever-resourceful Beast is proposing to spin it as the ultimate tool for protecting your stuff.
Starting with a Newsweek exclusive which wonderfully quotes His Billness as saying: "It’s a funny thing, we came at this thinking about music, but then we realized that e-mail and documents were far more interesting domains." Which is cute, because it suggests that Microsoft's original plans to produce a secure PC that will protect the music companies' stuff from us have been spiked in favour of something much more positive and progressive.
The Newsweek piece claims that although the researchers came at the project from a DRM angle they "quickly understood that the problems of intellectual property were linked to problems of security and privacy," and that therefore it had far wider applicability. Their early understanding of this in an alleged "skunkworks" project commenced in 1997 however is somewhat questionable, considering Microsoft Research published a piece in 2001 saying that researcher Paul "England has a bold plan to improve the PC and make it a secure delivery system for audio and video... making minor modifications to the PC's hardware to allow Microsoft to make a secure version of the Windows Media Player."
The Microsoft patent claim application granted last December is also for a digital rights management operating system, although here we do see clear indications of what it can do other than keep music moguls in coke:
"a computerized method for a digital rights management operating system comprising: assuming a trusted identity; executing a trusted application; loading rights-managed data into memory for access by the trusted application; and protecting the rights-managed data from access by an untrusted program while the trusted application is executing."
The Newsweek exclusive has, as we said earlier, been deliberately planted in order to prepare the way for the DRM OS, but it nevertheless contains many useful nuggets which we'd do well to consider before Microsoft attempts to build up unstoppable momentum behind the secure Windows you can't afford not to buy.
First, the project, called Palladium, has at least a hardware component. Intel and AMD have both been recruited to build the security into their chips, and while we can probably expect some more spinning on this, the mods will probably be relatively minor. As England said in his paper last year, it involves "minor modifications to the PC's hardware." As we understood it the original plan was to nobble the sound card rather than the whole machine, so we can see development here. It's also worth noting that: "Intel originally turned down the idea before eventually embracing it. AMD had already been thinking along similar lines, and eagerly signed on."
Which looks a little like Microsoft playing the old chippledum and chippledee game to its advantage again.
Newsweek provides us with helpful bullet points on the uses and applications of Palladium; we can infer a fair bit from these, and we very sportingly won't move the order around so DRM is at the top. First, it knows who you are (we don't know how, but as it's a 2004 timeframe product, we can surmise), and it knows who you're dealing with, so it verifies the origin of incomings, and decides what is allowed to run on your computer (No, we know this is DRM, but we haven't moved it up, honest).
There will almost certainly be an ID in the chip, and the 'what can run' question is rather broader than you might expect. "Only certain applications will access the part of Windows (nicknamed 'the nub') that performs Palladium’s functions with the help of the security chip - everything else will work exactly the same." Which implies a new generation of trusted Palladium applications, and "Microsoft expects a flood of Palladium-savvy applications and services to spring up" rather confirms that. The trusted application idea also applies to viruses and worms, of course, but it's not clear how Palladium will differentiate between the new generation of "trusted Palladium applications" and plain old 'not-a-worm really' applications. Maybe it won't, maybe in the long run the latter just won't run.
Encryption capabilities add to the picture, encrypting data moving from keyboard to computer and computer to screen, and of course computer to sound card output, but we don't mention that, for some reason. Encryption also appears to be standard on locally stored stuff
Palladium also: "Cans spam. Eventually, commercial pitches for recycled printer cartridges and barnyard porn can be stopped before they hit your inbox - while unsolicited mail that you might want to see can arrive if it has credentials that meet your standards."
This is a tricky one, as it implies a widescale certification process for email. It could work if it were possible to know absolutely that everybody in front of a computer was who they said they were, and to know where they lived, but we'll get back to that.
"Safeguards privacy." We have what looks like another crack at the services model here, with MS proposing a collection of services currently tagged "My Man." These are intended to operate as agents sending out information about you to the people you want to receive it, and encrypting it along the way. So "If you apply for a loan, you’d say to the lender, 'Get my details from My Man,' which, upon your authorization, would then provide your bank information, etc." Bad example, we reckon. If you have to send all of the information you'd ordinarily put on a loan form the vipers will know practically everything about you anyway, and given that you have no choice, automation will probably lead to them squeezing even more data out of you. Plus you can't lie, because all of that data's been verified - crumbs, there go the credit cards...
"Controls your information after you send it." Yes folks, here it comes, DRM - we've softened the bullet point head, but accidentally got onto the record companies in the next sentence. But they've evolved: Palladium "could allow users to exercise 'fair use' (like making personal copies of a CD) and publishers could at least start releasing works that cut a compromise between free and locked-down."
We're not entirely sure we know these record companies, but they're clearly not related to the ones who're trying to stop you playing your music CDs on your PC, copying your CDs at all, and salivating at the prospect of time-limited/per play rental arrangements.
More softening of the impact. The first generation of Palladium installations will allegedly be at the business end of the scale, "financial services, health care and government," where security is important, and Jim Allchin says he'd "have a hard time imagining that businesses wouldn’t want this." Certainly, it fits in nicely with Microsoft's current determination to reshape itself as a prime vendor of Trustworthy Computing, and it can be worked up into a sales pitch to counteract all that Windows security bad news in government and business.
But there's just a tad of dissonance here. If the system's ability to identify other trusted systems is dependent on those other systems being Palladium systems, then it doesn't altogether work if practically everybody doesn't have it. So MS VP Will Poole's contrary claim that: "We have to ship 100 million of these before it really makes a difference" is significant.
Given the way Microsoft ordinarily ships 100 million of whatever it wants to ship, we'd expect the company to continue thumping the security and privacy tubs for all they're worth, to start rolling it out around Longhorn time, and to evolve towards making it, and the chips, virtually compulsory through the good offices of Intel, AMD and the major PC companies. This will only work if the publicity campaign to reposition DRM as A Good Thing convinces the users, and that's by no means a given. We haven't even got on to the trustworthiness of the people who'll be keeping custody of your secure digital identity, for starters. Not yet... ®
MS to micro-manage your computer
The Beatles at the London Palladium