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Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols: Does Windows 8 help the government to spy on us?

Windows 8 and TMP said to combine to permit NSA spying on our computers

September 9, 2013 06:00 AM ET

Computerworld - The Microsoft fan club is up in arms. Those reports about Windows 8 allowing the government to spy on us? Nonsense, they fuss. It's simply not true that Windows 8 combines with Trusted Platform Module (TPM) to create a built-in back door for surveillance by the National Security Agency (NSA).

No, no, they whine, the German newspaper Die Zeit had it all wrong when it claimed that the combination of TPM 2.0 and Windows 8.x (German-language article) gives Microsoft complete control over which programs can and can't run, plus access to Windows BitLocker encryption, and the ability to remotely administer devices beyond a user's control.

And, oh my, no, the NSA or some other government agency could never, ever get into your computer or tablet via this technology pairing! Some Microsoft defenders even claim that the explanation from Germany's Federal Office for Information Security (BSI) (German-language article) about what's going on with Windows 8 and TPM 2.0 makes it clear that there's no real danger from using the pair in combination.

Really? They're not reading the same memo I'm reading.

I quote: "From the perspective of the BSI, the use of Windows 8 in combination with a TPM 2.0 is accompanied by a loss of control over the operating system and the hardware. [Emphasis and translation are mine.] This results in new risks for users, especially for the federal government and critical infrastructure. In particular... error conditions can result that prevent further operation of the system. This can cause errors that can brick the operating system and hardware. Such a situation would not be acceptable for the federal government nor for other users. In addition, the newly established mechanisms can also be used for sabotage by third parties. These risks need to be addressed."

Like Secure Boot, this is another step in Microsoft turning PCs into locked-down devices. While we can't know if Microsoft is sharing access with the NSA or other government agencies, the potential is certainly there for third parties to gain access to your PC and even your encrypted records if you use BitLocker.

Sure, TPM has always sounded like a good idea. The problem with "trusted computing" (registration required) has always been knowing exactly how trustworthy it is.

Once upon a time, PCs were open devices. You could run whatever you wanted on them. It seems clear to me that Microsoft wants to turn PCs into closed devices. First, there was Secure Boot with Windows 8. Then, with Windows 8.1, your built-in local search integrated with Bing and its advertisers (but see Microsoft's denial). And now we have built-in security holes.

I don't trust Microsoft with that much power. Frankly, I have a lot of trouble trusting any company that much. Call me old-fashioned, but I like knowing that I, and not someone else, has ultimate control over my PC. Give me open computers, not dedicated devices.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was cutting-edge and 300bps was a fast Internet connection -- and we liked it! He can be reached at sjvn@vna1.com.

Read more about Security in Computerworld's Security Topic Center.



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