October 21, 2002

Can you trust your computer?

Author: JT Smith

-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

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 corruption.

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 above.


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 dangerous.

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.

Editor's note: This article first appeared in Richard Stallman's new book,
"Free Software, Free Society." This is the first time the article has appeared online, and Stallman has added some new material.


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