fritz chip on the internets

Eugen Leitl eugen at
Thu Dec 15 05:07:26 PST 2005

Let.s see some ID, please

The end of anonymity on the Internet?

By Michael Rogers

Special to MSNBC
Updated: 7:53 a.m. ET Dec. 13, 2005

As the joke goes, on the Internet nobody knows a dog. But although
anonymity has been part of Internet culture since the first browser, it.s also
a major obstacle to making the Web a safe place to conduct business: Internet
fraud and identity theft cost consumers and merchants several billion dollars
last year. And many of the other more troubling aspects of the Internet, from
spam emails to sexual predators, also have their roots in the ease of masking
one.s identity in the online world.

Change, however, is on the way. Already over 20 million PCs worldwide are
equipped with a tiny security chip called the Trusted Platform Module,
although it is as yet rarely activated. But once merchants and other online
services begin to use it, the TPM will do something never before seen on the
Internet: provide virtually fool-proof verification that you are who you say
you are.

Some critics say that the chip will change the free-wheeling Web into a police
state, while others argue that it.s needed to create a safe public space.  But
the train has already left the station: by the end of this decade, a TPM will
almost certainly be part of your desktop, laptop and even cell phone.

The TPM chip was created by a coalition of over one hundred hardware and
software companies, led by AMD, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Microsoft and Sun. The
chip permanently assigns a unique and permanent identifier to every computer
before it leaves the factory and that identifier can.t subsequently be
changed. It also checks the software running on the computer to make sure it
hasn.t been altered to act malevolently when it connects to other machines:
that it can, in short, be trusted. For now, TPM-equipped computers are
primarily sold to big corporations for securing their networks, but starting
next year TPMs will be installed in many consumer models as well.

With a TPM onboard, each time your computer starts, you prove your identity to
the machine using something as simple as a PIN number or, preferably, a more
secure system such as a fingerprint reader. Then if your bank has TPM
software, when you log into their Web site, the bank.s site also .reads. the
TPM chip in your computer to determine that it.s really you. Thus, even if
someone steals your username and password, they won.t be able to get into your
account unless they also use your computer and log in with your fingerprint.
(In fact, with TPM, your bank wouldn.t even need to ask for your username and
password . it would know you simply by the identification on your machine.)

The same would go for online merchants . once you.d registered yourself and
your computer with an Amazon or an e-Bay, they.d simply look for the TPM on
your machine to confirm it.s you at the other end. (Of course you could always
.fool. the system by starting your computer with your unique PIN or
fingerprint and then letting another person use it, but that.s a choice
similar to giving someone else your credit card.)

Another plus for the TPM is that your computer will be able to make sure that
it.s really a legitimate e-commerce site connected to, and not some
phishing-style fraud. There would still, of course, be ways that you could
access your bank or e-commerce accounts from other computers when you were
traveling, but the connection wouldn.t be as secure as using your own
computer. Plans are already underway to put TPMs into smartphones and other
portable devices as well.

The TPM will become even more important as we move toward Web-based
applications, where we may actually store our documents and files on remote
servers. The TPM could automatically encrypt any files as soon as they left
your computer, and only allow decryption privileges to your TPM and any others
you might specify. It could automatically encrypt email as well, so that only
specific recipients are able to read it. And it could more firmly identify
where email originates, taking a big step forward in controlling spam at the

That is the potential good news. But some critics are worried that the TPM is
a step too far.  Their concern particularly revolves around using the TPM to
control .digital rights management. . that is, what you can and cannot do with
the music, movies and software you run on your computer.

A movie, for example, would be able to look at the TPM and know whether it was
legally licensed to run on that machine, whether it could be copied or sent to
others, or whether it was supposed to self-destruct after three viewings. If
you tried to do something with the movie that wasn.t allowed in the license,
your computer simply wouldn.t cooperate.

The same would go for software. Now that Apple is moving to Intel processors,
Mac fans are watching closely to see if the new machines will incorporate
TPMs. That may be the way that Apple makes sure that its Macintosh operating
system only runs on Apple computers . otherwise, hackers will probably be
quick to figure out ways to make the new Intel-based Macintosh software run on
HP or Dell machines as well. Similar concerns arise around how Microsoft might
make use of TPM to insure that its software is used only on machines with
paid-up licenses (as one joke has it: .TPM is Bill Gates. way of finally
getting the Chinese to pay for software..)

Ultimately the TPM itself isn.t inherently evil or good.  It will depend
entirely on how it.s used, and in that sphere, market and political forces
will be more important than technology.  Users will still control how much of
their identity they wish to reveal . in fact, for complex technical reasons,
the TPM will actually also make truly anonymous connections possible, if
that.s what both ends of the conversation agree on.  And should a media or
software company come up with overly Draconian restrictions on how its movies
or music or programs can be used, consumers will go elsewhere.  (Or worse:
Sony overstepped with the DRM on its music CDs recently and is now the target
of a dozen or so lawsuits, including ones filed by California and New York.)

To future historians, the anonymity experienced in the first decade of
the commercial Internet may in retrospect seem aberrant.  In the real world,
after all, we carry multiple forms of fixed identification, ranging from our
faces and fingerprints to drivers. licenses and social security numbers.  Some
of these are easier to counterfeit than others, but generally most of us are
more comfortable when we can prove who we are.  In some situations . driving
cars, boarding aircraft . required to have identification.  Of course,
our real world policies on identification . what kind we must have, when we
need to display it . have evolved over centuries of social and political
thought and is still, post 9/11, a national hot-button.  With the arrival of
the Trusted Computing Module, the argument will now extend to cyberspace as
) 2005 MSNBC Interactive

) 2005


Eugen* Leitl <a href="">leitl</a>
ICBM: 48.07100, 11.36820  
8B29F6BE: 099D 78BA 2FD3 B014 B08A  7779 75B0 2443 8B29 F6BE

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