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Thursday, December 28, 2006

Computer Survivalism?

The knowledgeable and wise Peter Gutmann (Department of Computer Science, University of Auckland, New Zealand) has posted a paper entitled “A Cost Analysis of Windows Vista Content Protection” which explores in detail the assorted “content protection” technologies mandated for computer hardware and device driver software by Windows Vista. If you have not been following this topic, you may be aghast at what is coming down the pike in the next generation of PCs designed to deliver “premium media content”. The details are so horrific and and depressing that I will not attempt to summarise them here; go read the article and keep in mind that most of the information therein is derived from the Microsoft documents cited at the end.

Apart from the consequences of this insanity for the reliability, performance, software and driver portability, and maintainability of the forthcoming products which will implement it, consider for a moment that if Microsoft are willing to go to such lengths to protect “content” owned by third parties (perhaps with the intent of “own[ing] the distribution channel” as Gutmann suggests in the “Final Thoughts” section), imagine what they will do with the complementary “trusted computing” technologies to defend their de facto monopoly against “unlicensed operating systems” and other competition. One of the most common reactions to The Digital Imprimatur was that the hardware-enforced end to end signatures I was proposing were paranoid, technically infeasible, and unacceptable to customers. But it is nothing compared to what Vista appears to require.

What are those of us who use computers to compute and create instead of passively consuming “premium media content” and games to do when the next generation of hardware essentially denies us the prerogatives of ownership of a machine we have purchased, and perhaps mandates the use of software which limits our access to the machine's full functionality? Maybe it's time to take a page from the survivalists' book and stockpile enough generic “white box” computers and spare parts of the last free generation to carry us through the Dark Times ahead. The more generic the components, the easier it will be to obtain spares on the used market should your own supply of spares of a given category be exhausted.

I would usually dismiss a suggestion like this as flaming paranoia, but it is difficult to read Gutmann's paper without concluding “they” are out to get us, or at least undertaking to transform personal computers as we have come to know them into locked-down “content delivery platforms” filled with secrets inaccessible to their nominal owners.

Posted at December 28, 2006 22:13