What Is Trusted Computing, part 2

(this page is part of the Family Guide to Digital Freedom, 2007 edition. Please do read that introduction to know more about the Guide, especially if you mean to comment this page. Thanks)

(continues from here]

Can Trusted Computing devices be modified?

The first time they encounter TC or DRM, many people erroneously believe that, since they were so smart in cracking their satellite receiver or installing a cracked copy of some software for DVD duplication, they can safely ignore it. This time it is really different, however. TC-capable hardware is neither so common nor supported yet that it can guarantee that it will refuse to start if the whole system (both hardware and software) is not in a completely trusted state.

In a few years, however, TC devices will include some extra hardware components, which will not be possible to modify, remove or reprogram with normal tools. Those components are just the ones which will decide if, when it is turned on, the whole system is in what others, not its legitimate owner, have defined as a reliable state.

If those components are programmed before assembly in the factory, according to the wishes of big media companies or software makers, they will decide what you can do with “your” computer, home theater or DVD player. For the first time, it will be not only illegal, but also physically impossible to turn off or circumvent the scheme in any way: it won’t be possible to disconnect or control the relevant signals, as some experts do at home today, without breaking the device.

All the corresponding signal lines and connectors will be completely embedded inside the board or some sealed integrated circuits. In such a situation, even if people will still be able to find non-TC devices in the stores, they may be useless for all practical purposes, from burning DVDs to creating your own music playlists or simply running the software tools you like better. According to some analysts, new computers without TC locks may become quite a rarity, if not disappear from stores altogether, as soon as in 2010.

How can I recognize Trusted Computing, and what should I do about it?

It’s easy. Before buying any software, computer, or other device able to create or use music, text, movies or any other type of creative work, ask:

  • does it contain a TPM or any other Trusted Computing component?” (TPM stands for Trusted Platform Module, a class of TC devices)
  • if yes, can I still install any software I want on it?

If the answer to the second question is “no” or “I have no idea”, think at least twice before buying, and explain why to the clerk.