[Fsf-friends] Can you trust your computer?

Frederick Noronha fred@bytesforall.org
Wed, 23 Oct 2002 11:06:45 +0530 (IST)

Can you trust your computer? (Xposted)

By Richard Stallman

Who should your computer take its orders from? Most people think their
computers should obey them, not obey someone else. With a plan they call
"trusted computing," large media corporations (including the movie companies
and record companies), together with computer companies such as Microsoft
and Intel, are planning to make your computer obey them instead of you.
Proprietary programs have included malicious features before, but this plan
would make it universal.

Proprietary software means, fundamentally, that you don't control what it
does; you can't study the source code, or change it. It's not surprising
that clever businessmen find ways to use their control to put you at a
disadvantage. Microsoft has done this several times: one version of Windows
was designed to report to Microsoft all the software on your hard disk; a
recent "security" upgrade in Windows Media Player required users to agree to
new restrictions. But Microsoft is not alone: the KaZaa music-sharing
software is designed so that KaZaa's business partner can rent out the use
of your computer to their clients. These malicious features are often
secret, but even once you know about them it is hard to remove them, since
you don't have the source code.

In the past, these were isolated incidents. "Trusted computing" would make
it pervasive. "Treacherous computing" is a more appropriate name, because
the plan is designed to make sure your computer will systematically disobey
you. In fact, it is designed to stop your computer from functioning as a
general-purpose computer. Every operation may require explicit permission.

The technical idea underlying treacherous computing is that the computer
includes a digital encryption and signature device, and the keys are kept
secret from you. (Microsoft's version of this is called "palladium.")
Proprietary programs will use this device to control which other programs
you can run, which documents or data you can access, and what programs you
can pass them to. These programs will continually download new authorization
rules through the Internet, and impose those rules automatically on your
work. If you don't allow your computer to obtain the new rules periodically
from the Internet, some capabilities will automatically cease to function.

Of course, Hollywood and the record companies plan to use treacherous
computing for "DRM" (Digital Restrictions Management), so that downloaded
videos and music can be played only on one specified computer. Sharing will
be entirely impossible, at least using the authorized files that you would
get from those companies. You, the public, ought to have both the freedom
and the ability to share these things. (I expect that someone will find a
way to produce unencrypted versions, and to upload and share them, so DRM
will not entirely succeed, but that is no excuse for the system.)

Making sharing impossible is bad enough, but it gets worse. There are plans
to use the same facility for email and documents -- resulting in email that
disappears in two weeks, or documents that can only be read on the computers
in one company.

Imagine if you get an email from your boss telling you to do something that
you think is risky; a month later, when it backfires, you can't use the
email to show that the decision was not yours. "Getting it in writing"
doesn't protect you when the order is written in disappearing ink.

Imagine if you get an email from your boss stating a policy that is illegal
or morally outrageous, such as to shred your company's audit documents, or
to allow a dangerous threat to your country to move forward unchecked. Today
you can send this to a reporter and expose the activity. With treacherous
computing, the reporter won't be able to read the document; her computer
will refuse to obey her. Treacherous computing becomes a paradise for

Word processors such as Microsoft Word could use treacherous computing when
they save your documents, to make sure no competing word processors can read
them. Today we must figure out the secrets of Word format by laborious
experiments in order to make free word processors read Word documents. If
Word encrypts documents using treacherous computing when saving them, the
free software community won't have a chance of developing software to read
them -- and if we could, such programs might even be forbidden by the
Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Programs that use treacherous computing will continually download new
authorization rules through the Internet, and impose those rules
automatically on your work. If Microsoft, or the U.S. government, does not
like what you said in a document you wrote, they could post new instructions
telling all computers to refuse to let anyone read that document. Each
computer would obey when it downloads the new instructions. Your writing
would be subject to 1984-style retroactive erasure. You might be unable to
read it yourself.

You might think you can find out what nasty things a treacherous computing
application does, study how painful they are, and decide whether to accept
them. It would be short-sighted and foolish to accept, but the point is that
the deal you think you are making won't stand still. Once you come depend on
using the program, you are hooked and they know it; then they can change the
deal. Some applications will automatically download upgrades that will do
something different -- and they won't give you a choice about whether to

Today you can avoid being restricted by proprietary software by not using
it. If you run GNU/Linux or another free operating system, and if you avoid
installing proprietary applications on it, then you are in charge of what
your computer does. If a free program has a malicious feature, other
developers in the community will take it out, and you can use the corrected
version. You can also run free application programs and tools on non-free
operating systems; this falls short of fully giving you freedom, but many
users do it.

Treacherous computing puts the existence of free operating systems and free
applications at risk, because you may not be able to run them at all. Some
versions of treacherous computing would require the operating system to be
specifically authorized by a particular company. Free operating systems
could not be installed. Some versions of treacherous computing would require
every program to be specifically authorized by the operating system
developer. You could not run free applications on such a system. If you did
figure out how, and told someone, that could be a crime.

There are proposals already for U.S. laws that would require all computers
to support treacherous computing, and to prohibit connecting old computers
to the Internet. The CBDTPA (we call it the Consume But Don't Try
Programming Act) is one of them. But even if they don't legally force you to
switch to treacherous computing, the pressure to accept it may be enormous.
Today people often use Word format for communication, although this causes
several sorts of problems (see
http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/no-word-attachments.html). If only a
treacherous computing machine can read the latest Word documents, many
people will switch to it, if they view the situation only in terms of
individual action (take it or leave it). To oppose treacherous computing, we
must join together and confront the situation as a collective choice.

For further information about treacherous computing, see

To block treacherous computing will require large numbers of citizens to
organize. We need your help! The Electronic Frontier Foundation
(www.eff.org) and Public Knowledge (www.publicknowledge.org) are campaigning
against treacherous computing, and so is the FSF-sponsored Digital Speech
Project (www.digitalspeech.org). Please visit these Web sites so you can
sign up to support their work.

You can also help by writing to the public affairs offices of Intel, IBM,
HP/Compaq, or anyone you have bought a computer from, explaining that you
don't want to be pressured to buy "trusted" computing systems so you don't
want them to produce any. This can bring consumer power to bear. If you do
this on your own, please send copies of your letters to the organizations


1. The GNU Project distributes the GNU Privacy Guard, a program that
implements public-key encryption and digital signatures, which you can use
to send secure and private email. It is useful to explore how GPG differs
from treacherous computing, and see what makes one helpful and the other so

When someone uses GPG to send you an encrypted document, and you use GPG to
decode it, the result is an unencrypted document that you can read, forward,
copy, and even re-encrypt to send it securely to someone else. A treacherous
computing application would let you read the words on the screen, but would
not let you produce an unencrypted document that you could use in other
ways. GPG, a free software package, makes security features available to the
users; they use it. Treacherous computing is designed to impose restrictions
on the users; it uses them.

2. Microsoft presents Palladium as a security measure, and claims that it
will protect against viruses, but this claim is evidently false. A
presentation by Microsoft Research in October 2002 stated that one of the
specifications of Palladium is that existing operating systems and
applications will continue to run; therefore, viruses will continue to be
able to do all the things that they can do today.

When Microsoft speaks of "security" in connection with Palladium, they do
not mean what we normally mean by that word: protecting your machine from
things you do not want. They mean protecting your copies of data on your
machine from access by you in ways others do not want. A slide in the
presentation listed several types of secrets Palladium could be used to
keep, including "third party secrets" and "user secrets" -- but it put "user
secrets" in quotation marks, recognizing that this is not what Palladium is
really designed for.

The presentation made frequent use of other terms that we frequently
associate with the context of security, such as "attack," "malicious code,"
"spoofing," as well as "trusted." None of them means what it normally means.
"Attack" doesn't mean someone trying to hurt you, it means you trying to
copy music. "Malicious code" means code installed by you to do what someone
else doesn't want your machine to do. "Spoofing" doesn't mean someone
fooling you, it means you fooling Palladium. And so on.

3. A previous statement by the Palladium developers stated the basic premise
that whoever developed or collected information should have total control of
how you use it. This would represent a revolutionary overturn of past ideas
of ethics and of the legal system, and create an unprecedented system of
control. The specific problems of these systems are no accident; they result
from the basic goal. It is the goal we must reject.

Copyright 2002 Richard Stallman
Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article is permitted
without royalty in any medium provided this notice is preserved.