What is Trusted Computing?

Trusted computing centers around using computer hardware to protect parts of a computer from attack or unintentional damage. The Trusted Computing Group, an international collective mostly made up of computer hardware manufacturers, writes the designs and specifications for the technology. The basic idea behind the technology is the isolation of areas of a computer to prevent non-trusted software from accessing information or running on the system. Trusted computing has run into strong opposition, mostly due to its abilities to circumvent user control and privacy.

The technology uses a chip that is placed into a computer. It has two keys– one is known only to the computer and the other is known only to trusted computing hardware manufacturers and software companies. The chip takes over certain areas of the computer, mostly memory and storage, and uses the keys to verify proper activity on the system.

The technology attempts to safeguard computers by forcing them to act in a consistent manner. In theory, by allowing an outside source to control the basic operations of a computer, certain disruptive or harmful elements are completely stopped. Programs that shouldn’t be accessing areas of the computer are prevented. This control is used to prevent unintentional user error and can stop many kinds of malicious software, or malware, attacks.

Certain arms of government and private companies use trusted computing heavily. The United States Army and the Department of Defense have trusted computing modules installed on every new machine. Computer and software companies Microsoft and Dell are dabbling with the technology, but plan on increasing their involvement over time. Companies Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) and Intel Corporation plan to use trusted computing modules in every one of their upcoming processor chips.

Trusted computing has generated a lot of controversy surrounding its methods and policies. Many software user rights groups and personal freedoms organizations are strongly against this technology. Several open software companies are also opposed to the methods used to determine what is and isn’t trusted software.

One of the strongest areas of opposition centers on digital rights management (DRM). Without trusted computing, a person can save his files onto a disk and to a different computer, and the files will run just as well on the second computer as the first. With the module, the files wouldn’t necessarily run, because their internal keys wouldn’t match those at the new location. In addition, if you wanted to upgrade your computer’s hardware or open a file in a different program, you might not be able to. According to opponents, this lack of mobility and options stifles market competition and is therefore illegal.
The DRM problems also extend to access. If you purchase a digital item, the trusted computing module can limit how, when and the number of times you can access the file in a given period. If the module will only let you play a song at 8 pm on Monday, the file will not run at any other time. This extends to items without specifically embedded DRM as well. If the same song had no DRM at all, the module still may not play it due to its unsecured nature.