Skip to main content

Trusted Computing: Promise and Risk

October 1, 2003

October 2003


Computer security is undeniably important, and as new
vulnerabilities are discovered and exploited, the perceived need for
new security solutions grows. "Trusted computing" initiatives propose
to solve some of today's security problems through hardware changes
to the personal computer. Changing hardware design isn't inherently
suspicious, but the leading trusted computing proposals have a high
cost: they provide security to users while giving third parties the
power to enforce policies on users' computers against the users'
wishes -- they let others pressure you to hand some control over your
PC to someone else. This is a "feature" ready-made for abuse by
software authors who want to anticompetitively choke off rival

It needn't be this way: a straightforward change to the plans of
trusted computing vendors could leave the security benefits intact
while ensuring that a PC owner's will always trumps the wishes of those
who've loaded software or data onto the PC.

Redesigning PC hardware for security

There is a widespread perception that personal computer security
is in an unfortunate state and that something must be done to fix
it. There are many promising approaches to improving security --
redesigning operating systems, changing programming methodologies,
or altering the PC's hardware itself. It is well known that a
comprehensive defense against the security threats faced by PC users
will involve several approaches, not just one. An insecure system
can't magically become "secure" with the addition of a single piece of

Changes to the design of PC hardware are one useful tool among many
for improving security. While hardware changes aren't a prerequisite
for increased security, they're undeniably helpful -- for example,
by providing a way to store private keys (and therefore the private
documents protected by those keys) safely. One family of projects to
add security to PCs through hardware changes is known as "trusted
computing". This broad term includes a mix of initiatives by individual
processor manufacturers and OEMs, along with two particularly
well-known larger projects.

The first of these is an operating system project by Microsoft
-- originally called Palladium and now referred to as the Microsoft
Next-Generation Secure Computing Base, or NGSCB. The NGSCB project
specifies software changes that take advantage of the security
benefits made available by a planned new PC hardware design. The
other well-known project is a hardware specification project run by a
consortium originally called the Trusted Computing Platform Alliance,
or TCPA. TCPA issued several specification documents and then changed
its name to the trusted computing group, or TCG.

Between them, these two projects have created a bewildering array
of new terminology, including the obligatory thicket of new acronyms.
In several cases, one of these projects has devised many different
names for a single concept -- even as the other project has its own
entirely different terminology. A reasonably complete glossary for
these two projects could fill dozens of pages. In the interest of
simplicity, we note that the requirements of NGSCB are converging with
the features of the design specified by TCG. (Microsoft is a TCG member
and has expressed an interest in using the TCG design in the role of
the hardware components required by NGSCB.) Some OEMs have begun to
integrate early TCG chips onto their computers' motherboards; in the
future, more computer manufacturers may include future versions of
trusted computing circuits in their PCs. The NGSCB software would be
one application of several which could take advantage of the features
of these chips.

While these projects are still distinct, it is reasonable to speak
of a single "trusted computing architecture" toward which both projects
are headed. (Only a portion of this architecture is described by
the most recently published TCG specification, and, as TCG notes,
additional software will be required to make use of many of these
features.) Less well known trusted computing projects under development
by processor vendors (and TCG members) Intel and AMD may fill in some
of the gaps between what TCG has so far specified and what NGSCB would
require. Intel's LaGrande Technology (LT) and AMD's Secure Execution
Mode (SEM), for example, provide
hardware support needed for all the major feature groups in NGSCB. The
Intel and AMD projects are not discussed as separate entities here,
but their features would build on TCG features to provide the hardware
support demanded by NGSCB.

One important similarity between the NGSCB design and the existing
TCG specification is that both contain a "remote attestation" feature,
which we will criticize extensively below. Even though there are
differences between Microsoft's and TCG's technical descriptions of
remote attestation, both can, given proper operating system support, be
used in functionally equivalent ways. Whether or not the NGSCB and TCG
projects converge on a single hardware design, the general criticisms
of attestation here will properly apply to either.

We are describing a work in progress, but it is important that we
start now to understand the proposed changes to the PC and their likely
effects on our computing activities. Broadly speaking, the trusted
computing architecture is a misguided implementation of a valuable
idea, and would offer both advantages and disadvantages to computer

In Microsoft's account of the trusted computing architecture, the
anticipated changes are divided at a high level into four groups, all
of which require new hardware to be added to today's PCs. These are

  1. Memory curtaining
  2. Secure input and output
  3. Sealed storage
  4. Remote attestation

Each feature has a different security rationale, although the
features can be used in conjunction with one another.

1. Memory curtaining

Memory curtaining refers to a strong, hardware-enforced memory
isolation feature to prevent programs from being able to read or write
one another's memory. Today, an intruder or malicious code can often
read or alter sensitive data in a PC's memory. In the trusted computing
design, even the operating system should not have access to curtained
memory, so an intruder who gains control of the very operating system
would not be able to interfere with programs' secure memory.

Although memory isolation can be achieved in software, this requires
some combination of rewriting operating systems, device drivers, and
possibly even application software. Implementing this feature in
hardware instead permits greater backwards compatibility with existing
software and reduces the quantity of software which must be rewritten.
(In general, many of the security benefits of trusted computing could
be achieved in some form simply by rewriting software, but this appears
impractical to some.)

2. Secure I/O

Secure input and output, or secure I/O, aims to address the threats
posed by keyloggers and screen-grabbers, software used by snoops and
intruders to spy on computer users' activities. A keylogger records
what you type, and a screen-grabber records what's displayed on the
screen. Secure I/O provides a secure hardware path from the keyboard to
an application -- and from the application back to the screen. No other
software running on the same PC will be able to determine what the user
typed, or how the application responded. (At the same time, secure
I/O will provide protection against some more esoteric attacks. It
will allow programs to determine whether their input is provided by a
physically present user, as distinct from another program impersonating
a user. And it will defeat some cases of forgery where one program
attempts to corrupt or mask another's output in order to deceive the

3. Sealed storage

Sealed storage addresses a major PC security failing: the inability
of a PC to securely store cryptographic keys. Customarily, the keys and
passwords that protect private documents or accounts are stored locally
on the computer's hard drive, alongside the documents themselves. This
has been compared to leaving the combination to a safe in the same room
with the safe itself. In practice, intruders who break into a computer
can frequently copy decryption and signing keys from that computer's
hard drive. Since the keys must be accessible to computer users in
order to be usable for their intended purpose, security engineers have
faced a quandary: how can keys be stored so that they are accessible
only to legitimate users and not to, say, a virus, which might acquire
the same privileges as a legitimate user?

Sealed storage is an ingenious invention that generates keys based
in part on the identity of the software requesting to use them and
in part on the identity of the computer on which that software is
running. The result is that the keys themselves need not be stored
on the hard drive but can be generated whenever they are needed
-- provided that authorized software tries to generate them on an
authorized machine. If a program other than the program that originally
encrypted, or "sealed", private data should attempt to decrypt, or
"unseal", that data, the attempt is guaranteed to fail. Similarly, if
the data is copied in encrypted form to a different machine, attempts
to decrypt it will continue to be unsuccessful. Thus, your e-mail could
be readable to your e-mail client, but incomprehensible to a virus.
Sealed storage represents a clever solution to a previously intractable
key storage problem.

For example, suppose you keep a private diary on your PC today.
You want to prevent the diary from being moved off your computer
without your permission, much as you might lock a paper diary inside
a desk drawer. While existing access control and encryption systems
address this goal, they might be bypassed or subverted. If someone
compromises your system, or it becomes infected with a worm or virus,
local software could be altered, or private documents could be e-mailed
or copied to other computers. (The SirCam e-mail worm did precisely
this -- whenever it infected a computer, it sent files it found there
as e-mail attachments to randomly chosen Internet users. A substantial
amount of private and confidential information was inappropriately
disclosed as a result.)

You can encrypt your diary using a password, but if your password is
short, someone who can copy the encrypted diary will still be able to
decrypt it (by trying each possibility in a brute force attack). What's
more, if the encryption software you use, or the editor in which you
compose the diary, is surreptitiously replaced with a modified version,
it might leak the decrypted diary's text (or your password) to a third

Sealed storage can work together with memory curtaining and secure
I/O to ensure that your diary can only be read on your computer,
and only by the particular software with which you created it. Even
if a virus or worm like SirCam leaks your encrypted diary, the
recipient will not be able to decrypt it. If an intruder or a virus
surreptitiously alters your encryption software, it will no longer be
able to decrypt the diary, so the contents of your diary will remain

4. Remote attestation

Remote attestation is the most significant and the most
revolutionary of the four major feature groups described by Microsoft.
Broadly, it aims to allow "unauthorized" changes to software to be
detected. If an attacker has replaced one of your applications, or a
part of your operating system with a maliciously altered version, you
should be able to tell. Because the attestation is "remote", others
with whom you interact should be able to tell, too. Thus, they can
avoid sending sensitive data to a compromised system. If your computer
should be broken into, other computers can refrain from sending private
information to it, at least until it has been fixed.

While remote attestation is obviously useful, the current TCG
approach to attestation is flawed. TCG attestation conspicuously fails
to distinguish between applications that protect computer owners
against attack and applications that protect a computer against its
owner. In effect, the computer's owner is sometimes treated as just
another attacker or adversary who must be prevented from breaking in
and altering the computer's software.

Remote attestation works by generating, in hardware, a cryptographic
certificate attesting to the identity of the software currently running
on a PC. (There is no determination of whether the software is good
or bad, or whether it is compromised or not compromised. "Identity"
is represented by a cryptographic hash, which simply allows different
programs to be distinguished from one another, or changes in their
code to be discerned, without conveying any sort of value judgment.)
This certificate may, at the PC user's request, be provided to any
remote party, and in principle has the effect of proving to that party
that the machine is using expected and unaltered software. If the
software on the machine has been altered, the certificate generated
will reflect this. We will see that this approach, although elegant,
proves problematic.

How trusted computing affects the PC

Each of these four feature groups is likely to be useful to computer
security, because each can be used by appropriate software to prevent
or mitigate real attacks currently used against PCs. Thus, a PC with
hardware support for these features can provide security guarantees
that might be difficult to offer without hardware support. Of course,
flaws in software will still permit other attacks, including the
disclosure of private information. Trusted computing technology can't
prevent computer security holes altogether. In general, it seeks
to contain and limit the damage that can result from a particular
flaw. For instance, it should not be possible for a coding flaw in
one application (like a web browser) to be abused to copy or alter
data from a different application (like a word processor). This
sort of isolation and containment approach is an important area of
computer security research and is used in many different approaches to
computer security, including promising techniques outside of trusted

The trusted computing features just described will add new
capabilities to the PC. To be used, they must be supported by
software; in the absence of trusted computing software drivers, the
trusted computing PC is just an ordinary PC, which remains capable
of running all existing PC software. To put this another way, the
trusted computing architecture is designed to be backwards-compatible
in supporting the ability to run existing operating systems and
application software. Microsoft also anticipates that future versions
of Microsoft Windows (which could include NGSCB software) would be
backwards compatible, able to run essentially all of today's DOS
and Windows applications. In addition, the new PCs could run new
trusted-computing-aware applications that take advantage of the new
hardware features.

Misconceptions about trusted computing

Misconceptions about this design abound. The most common
misconception denies that the trusted computing PCs would really be
backwards-compatible or able to run existing software. While it is
certainly possible for manufacturers to build non-backwards-compatible
PCs, or PCs incapable of running particular code, nothing in the TCG
specifications insists on this. More importantly, the trusted computing
architecture security model does not require that insecure, harmful,
or undesirable software be prevented from running. The security model
instead concentrates on software isolation -- preventing running
programs from interfering with one another.

When programs are adequately protected against interference by other
programs, there is no security requirement that any particular software
should be prevented from running. Just as multi-user operating systems
allow users to run the software of their choice while protecting other
users from the effects of that software, NGSCB could allow users to
run the software of their choice while protecting other software from
its effects. Only a particularly crude security model would require
prohibiting "bad" software from a computer entirely, and the NGSCB
model is not so crude. In addition, that approach would require some
means of determining which software is "bad", which would truly be a
daunting task. (Some proprietary systems assume that all software not
signed by a recognized authority is "bad", but users would properly
reject this heavy-handed approach in the computer environment. They
rightly insist on being able to write and use software without the
prior approval of some authority.)

None of the hardware demanded by NGSCB appears to be specific to
Microsoft Windows. The TCPA/TCG hardware design is clearly not specific
to any particular operating system. IBM researchers have recently
published software under the GNU GPL to make a TCPA TPM chip work with
the Linux kernel. This software is usable today to improve the security
of cryptographic key storage on Linux-based systems running on hardware
that supports TCPA.

Neither TCG nor NGSCB would itself inherently prevent users
from using any particular operating system, program, or data file.
And neither inherently requires or includes a mechanism to spy on

Where's the problem?

It is clear that trusted computing hardware provides security
benefits, if software is prepared to take advantage of it. But trusted
computing has been received skeptically and remains controversial.
Some of the controversy is based on misconceptions, but much of it is
appropriate, since trusted computing systems fundamentally alter trust
relationships. Legitimate concerns about trusted computing are not
limited to one area, such as consumer privacy or copyright issues.

We have at least two serious concerns about trusted computing.
First, existing designs are fundamentally flawed because they
expose the public to new risks of anti-competitive and anti-consumer
behavior. Second, manufacturers of particular "trusted" computers and
components may secretly implement them incorrectly. We will discuss
the first of these problems in greater detail here.

Problem: Third-party uncertainty about your software environment is normally a feature, not a bug

Even if the hardware is implemented according to published
specifications, it could still be used in ways that harm computer
owners. (Lucky Green, Ross Anderson)

Even as trusted computing architectures provide security benefits,
they may include features that can be abused, to the detriment of
the customers who are asked to adopt the technology. Chief among
these features is remote attestation, which Microsoft describes as
"break[ing] new ground in distributed computing" because no comparable
feature exists in current computers.

Security design necessarily includes specifying a threat model:
what kinds of attacks and what kinds of attackers is a security
measure meant to prevent against? A security measure that prevents
one attack may be completely ineffective against a different sort
of attack; conversely, a security measure required for some purpose
might be useless at best for those who do not share that goal. Our
most fundamental concern is that trusted computing systems are being
deliberately designed to support threat models in which the owner
of a "trusted" computer is considered a threat. These models are
the exception rather than the rule in the history of computer and
communications security, and they are not part of the rationales for
trusted computing publicly offered by its proponents.

Attestation is appropriate for the purpose of preventing the
software on a computer from being changed without the knowledge of
the computer's owner (for instance, by a virus). Unfortunately, the
attestation model in TCG's current design can equally effectively
prevent the software on a computer from being changed deliberately by
the computer owner with his or her full knowledge and consent. While
the owner is always free to alter software, attestation adds a new
risk: doing so may now eliminate the computer's ability to interoperate
with other computers.

Because third parties currently have no reliable way to tell
what software you are using, they have no reliable way to compel
you to use the software of their choice. This aspect of the status
quo is almost always a benefit for computer owners -- in terms of
improved competition, software choice, software interoperability, and
owners' ability to control their computers -- and therefore
no attestation scheme that changes this situation is likely to be
beneficial to consumers. Examples of the problems with changing this
part of the status quo appear below.

Examples of abuses of remote attestation

Let's consider a few concrete examples of how TCG's attestation
approach can harm interoperability or be used against computer owners.

1. On the Web

A web site could demand a software attestation from people wishing
to read it. If they declined to provide an attestation, the site would
refuse to deal with them at all; if the attestation showed that they
were using "unapproved" software, the site would likewise decline to
interact with them. Only those who could produce a digital certificate
proving that their computers' software was satisfactory to the remote
site would be permitted to use it. And this certificate could be
produced -- in the current TCG scheme of things --
only if its contents were accurate.

Today, there is no really reliable way to achieve this effect.
Therefore, attempts to coerce users into using particular software
are currently ineffective; web sites are hard-pressed to control
what operating systems and applications their users can use. Reverse
engineering allows the creation of competitive new software that works
well with existing software and services, and therefore computer
owners have real choice. It is effectively impossible to punish them
for choosing to use software other than that favored by those they
deal with. If they want to use a different web browser or a different
operating system, they know that they are unlikely to be locked out by
the services most important to them.

For instance, some of today's on-line banking services claim to
"require" Microsoft's browser, but users of other software are readily
able to instruct their browsers to impersonate Internet Explorer.
As far as the bank is concerned, its customers are accessing the
site with the browser it demanded, but the users are not locked
into technology decisions dictated by the shortsightedness of their
financial institutions.

In a widely publicized case, MSN, the Microsoft Network, briefly
refused to serve web pages to non-Microsoft browsers. In the interim,
users of competitive products were able to fool MSN into thinking
they were running Microsoft browsers. This would be impossible in an
environment of routine NGSCB-style remote attestations. By allowing a
web site to lock out disfavored software this way, these attestations
would let anyone with market power leverage that power to control our
software choices.

Security has nothing to do with many sites' motivations for preventing
the use of disfavored software. Indeed, their reasons may be entirely
arbitrary. In some cases, a site operator wants to force you to use a
particular program in order to subject you to advertising. By verifying
your use of an "approved" client, the site can satisfy itself that you
have been forced to view a certain number of advertisements.

2. Software interoperability and lock-in

Software interoperability is also at risk. A developer of a web
server program, file server program, e-mail server program, etc., could
program it to demand attestations; the server could categorically
refuse to deal with clients that had been produced by someone other
than the server program's publisher. Or the publisher could insist on
licensing fees from client developers, and make its server interoperate
only with those who had paid the fee. (It is similarly possible to
create proprietary encrypted file formats which can only be read by
"approved" software, and for which the decryption keys must be obtained
from a network server and are extremely difficult to recover by reverse

The publisher in this case could greatly increase the switching
costs for its users to adopt a rival's software. If a user has a
large amount of important data stored inside a proprietary system,
and the system communicates only with client software written by the
proprietary system's publisher, it may be extremely difficult for the
user to migrate his or her data into a new software system. When the
new system tries to communicate with the old system in order to extract
the data, the old system may refuse to respond.

The Samba file server is an important example of interoperable
software created through reverse engineering. Samba developers studied
the network protocol used by Microsoft Windows file servers and
created an alternative implementation, which they then published as
free/open source software. Samba can be deployed on a computer network
in place of a Windows file server, and Windows client machines will
communicate with it just as if it were a Windows server. (Similarly,
Samba provides the means to allow non-Windows clients to access Windows
file servers.) Without competitive software like Samba, users of
Windows clients would be forced to use Windows servers, and vice versa.
But if software could routinely identify the software at the other
end of a network connection, a software developer could make programs
demand attestations and then forbid any rival's software to connect or
interoperate. If Microsoft chose to use NGSCB in this way, it could
permanently lock Samba out of Windows file services, and prevent any
useful competing implementations of the relevant protocols except by
specific authorization.

Similarly, instant messaging (IM) services have frequently tried
to lock out their competitors' clients and, in some cases, free/open
source IM clients. Today, these services are typically unsuccessful
in creating more than a temporary disruption for users. An attestation
mechanism would be a powerful tool for limiting competition and
interoperability in IM services. Some client applications could be
permanently prevented from connecting at all, even though they
offer features end-users prefer.

These are examples of a more general problem of "lock-in",
often practiced as a deliberate business strategy in the software
industry, to the detriment of business and home computer users alike.
Unfortunately, the TCG design provides powerful new tools to enable
lock-in. Attestation is responsible for this problem; sealed storage
can exacerbate things by allowing the program that originally created
a file to prevent any other program from reading it. Thus, both
network protocols and file formats can be used to attack software

3. DRM, tethering, forced upgrades, and forced downgrades

Many people have speculated that trusted computing technology
is a way of bringing digital rights management (DRM) technology to
the PC platform. Some portions of the trusted computing research
agenda have roots in DRM, and Microsoft has announced a DRM technology
(Microsoft Rights Management Services) that it says will make use of
NGSCB. However, trusted computing developers deny that DRM is the
main focus of their efforts, and trusted computing is useful for many
applications besides DRM. Ultimately, DRM is just one of several uses
of a technology like NGSCB -- but it illustrates the general problem
that NGSCB's current approach to attestation tends to harm
competition and computer owners' control.

The NGSCB design's elements can all be useful to implementers of
DRM systems. Curtaining prevents information in decrypted form from
being copied out of a DRM client's memory space, which prevents making
an unrestricted clear copy. Secure output can prevent information
displayed on the screen from being recorded, which prevents the use
of "screen-scrapers" or device drivers that record information rather
than displaying it. Sealed storage allows files to be stored encrypted
on a hard drive in such a way that only the DRM client that created
them will be able to make use of them. And remote attestation can
prevent any program other than a publisher-approved DRM client from
ever receiving a particular file in the first place.

Among these elements, remote attestation is the linchpin of DRM
policy enforcement. If a remote system lacks reliable knowledge of
your software environment, it can never have confidence that your
software will enforce policies against you. (You might have replaced a
restrictive DRM client with an ordinary client that does not restrict
how you can use information.) Thus, even though other NGSCB features
aid DRM implementations, only remote attestation enables DRM policies
to be instituted in the first place, by preventing the substitution of
less-restrictive software at the time the file is first acquired.

Other consumer-unfriendly software behaviors which can be implemented by
means of attestation, combined with sealed storage, include tethering
(preventing a program or a file from being migrated from one computer
to another), forcing software upgrades or downgrades, and enabling some
limited classes of "spyware" -- in this case, applications that phone
home to describe how they are being used. (Some of these behaviors
might be good things if they occur at a computer owner's behest, but
not if they occur at a software publisher's or service provider's whim.
For example, you might want to prevent a sensitive file from being
moved off your computer, but you wouldn't want other people to be able
to prevent you from moving your own files around.) Although all these
unfriendly behaviors can be implemented in software today, they can in
principle be defeated by well-understood techniques such as running
a program in an emulated environment, or altering it to remove the
undesirable behavior. Remote attestation makes it possible for the
first time for a program to obtain and communicate reliable evidence
about whether it is running in an emulator or whether it has been

More generally, attestation in the service of remote policy
enforcement leads to a variety of mechanisms of "remote control" of
software running on your computer. We emphasize that these remote
control features are not a part of NGSCB, but NGSCB does enable their
robust implementation by software programmers. Lucky Green provides
the example of a program written to receive from some authority a
"revocation list" of banned documents it is no longer permitted to
display. This mechanism would have to have been implemented in the
software when it was initially written (or it would have to be added
through a forced upgrade). If such a restriction were implemented,
however, it would be essentially impossible for the user to override.
In that case, some authority could remotely revoke documents already
resident on computers around the world; those computers would, despite
the wishes of their owners, comply with the revocation policy. The
enforcement of this policy, like others, against the computer owner is
dependent on the remote attestation feature.

4. Computer owner as adversary?

The current version of remote attestation facilitates the
enforcement of policies against the wishes of computer owners. If
the software you use is written with that goal in mind, the trusted
computing architecture will not only protect data against intruders and
viruses, but also against you. In effect, you, the computer owner, are
treated as an adversary.

This problem arises because of the attestation design's
single-minded focus on accurately reflecting the computer's state
in every situation -- making no exceptions. A computer owner can
disable attestation entirely, but not cause an attestation that does
not reflect the current state of her PC -- you can't fool your bank
about what browser you're using or to your other PC about what kind
of Windows file sharing client you're running. This approach benefits
the computer owner
only when the remote party to whom the attestation is given
has the same interests as the owner
. If you give an attestation
to a service provider who wants to help you detect unauthorized
modifications to your computer, attestation benefits you. If you're
required to give an attestation to someone who aims to forbid you from
using the software of your choice, attestation harms you.

A user-centered, pro-competitive approach to attestation features
would give the owner the power to guarantee that attestation is never
abused for a purpose of which the owner disapproves, maximizing
computer owners' practical control over their computers in real-world
network environments.

Some trusted computing developers insist that their existing
approach to attestation is reasonable because giving an attestation
is voluntary. In every situation, they argue, you can decline to give
an attestation if you prefer not to present one. (Indeed, TCG's
design allows you to turn the TCG TPM chip off entirely, or decide
whether to present an attestation in a particular situation.) But as
we've seen, attestation can be used to create barriers to interoperability
and access, so users will face an enormous amount of pressure to
present an attestation. It's economically unreasonable to assume that a
technology will benefit people solely because they can decide whether to
use it.

We are not saying that the ability to communicate information about
a computer's software environment is undesirable. This capability might
well be useful for some security applications. We simply observe that
the content of information about a computer's software environment
should always be subject to the close control of that computer's owner.
A computer owner -- not a third party -- should be able to decide, in
her sole discretion, whether the information acquired by a third party
will be accurate. This ensures that the attestation capability will not
be used in a way contrary to the computer owner's interest.

A solution: Owner Override

The lack of computer-owner control of the content of attestations
is the central problem with the current trusted computing proposals.
It is an unacceptably grave design flaw that must be remedied before
the trusted computing architecture as a whole package will be of clear
benefit to computer owners.

A simple measure we call Owner Override could fix the problem by
restoring others' inability to know for certain what software you're
running -- unless you decide you would be better off if they knew.
Owner Override subtly changes the nature of the security benefit
provided by attestation. Currently, attestation tells remote parties
whether the software on your computer has been changed. Attestation
plus Owner Override would let remote parties know if the software on
your computer has been changed without your knowledge. Thus,
detection of illicit activity would still be practical. If, however,
you had made deliberate changes on your own computer, you could conceal
them, just as you can today, to prevent someone else from using your
choices as a reason to discriminate against you.

Owner Override works by empowering a computer owner, when physically
present at the computer in question, deliberately to choose to generate
an attestation which does not reflect the actual state of the software
environment -- to present the picture of her choice of her computer's
operating system, application software or drivers. Since such an
attestation can only be generated by the computer owner's conscious
choice, the value of attestation for detecting unauthorized changes
is preserved. But the PC owner has regained fine-grained control,
even in a network environment, and the PC can no longer be expected
to enforce policies against its owner. Owner Override removes the
toolbox that allows the trusted computing architecture to be abused
for anti-interoperability and anti-competitive purposes. It restores
the important ability to reverse engineer computer programs to promote
interoperability between them. Broadly, it fixes trusted computing
so that it protects the computer owner and authorized users against
attacks, without limiting the computer owner's authority to decide
precisely which policies should be enforced. It does so without
undermining any benefit claimed for the TCG architecture or showcased
in Microsoft's public NGSCB demonstration. And it is consistent
with TCG's and most vendors' statements about the goals of trusted

(In a corporate setting, the corporation might be the owner of
the computers its employees use, retaining the power to set network
computing polices for its users. Since Owner Override requires users to
provide owner credentials before defeating policies, it does not impair
a computer owner's control over authorized users. A corporation can,
for example, still use attestations to control what software employees
can use on corporate desktop machines when they access corporate
network resources.)

Owner Override does preclude some interesting new applications,
particularly in distributed computing. In the status quo, it's not
typically possible to send data to an adversary's computer while
controlling what the adversary can do with it. Owner Override preserves
that aspect of the status quo, to the regret of application developers
who would like to be able to trust remote computers even while
distrusting their owners. Similarly, Owner Override prevents trusted
computing from being used to stop cheating in network games. Since
Owner Override -- like trusted computing in general -- removes no
existing features or functionality from the PC, we believe that its
advantages significantly outweigh its disadvantages.

Despite the plausible desirability of hardware improvements to
enhance computer security, not just any set of hardware changes will
do. PC owners should think carefully about which direction they want
their platform to develop. Trusted computing systems that protect your
computer against you and prevent you from overriding policies are, on
balance, a step backward. An Owner Override feature or its equivalent
is a necessary fix to the design of trusted computing systems.

(This table shows how Owner Override preserves most security
benefits of remote attestation while avoiding its risks.)

Status quoAttestationAttestation + Owner Override

Competition and interoperability are the norm

control and choice are protected

Lock-in and
remote control are difficult because computer owners have
substantial control over all local software in all circumstances

Compromise of software (e.g., by a virus) can be made
detectable by a remote party, which can act on this information

Cheating in network games can be prevented, and
distributed applications (, SETI@Home, etc.)
can run on computers owned by untrustworthy parties without risking
integrity of calculations or confidentiality of data

Organizations can more effectively enforce policies
against their own members

"Paternalist" security policies that protect users from
the consequences of certain of their own mistakes can be

Compromise of software can still be made detectable by a
remote party

An organization can more effectively enforce
policies against its own members, so long as they are
using computers owned by the organization

owners retain substantial control over local software

Competition, interoperability, user control and choice
are preserved


There is no way in general to allow a remote party to
detect whether, without the computer owner's knowledge, local
software has been inappropriately modified

Cheating in
network games cannot be prevented

Cheating by unscrupulous
participants in distributed computing projects cannot be

"Paternalist" security policies that
protect users against their own mistakes are difficult to

Third parties can enforce policies against computer
owner where
traditionally these would not have been technologically
enforceable, or would have been enforceable only with
difficulty -- for example:

  • DRM
  • application lock-in
  • migration and back-up restrictions
  • product activation
  • product tethering
  • forced upgrade

  • forced downgrade
  • application-specific spyware
  • preventing reverse engineering, etc.

Cheating in network games or by unscrupulous distributed
computing participants still cannot be prevented

"Paternalist" security
policies remain difficult to enforce

To the extent
that computer owners might potentially benefit from the robust
enforcement of DRM policies, they would not obtain those

Problem: Verification of implementations

How can computer owners know that their trusted computing hardware has
been implemented according to its published specifications? (Ruediger

This is an important problem for all cryptographic hardware,
not just trusted computing hardware. But since most PCs have not
previously contained any specialized cryptographic hardware, most PC
users simply haven't had occasion to worry about this problem in the
past. While any hardware could contain back doors or undocumented
features, cryptographic hardware is unique in that it has access to
important secret information as well as opportunities to leak that
information through undetectable covert channels (for example, in
attestation certificates). Thus, it is important to assure that trusted
computer hardware manufacturers implement the specifications correctly,
without including undocumented features that would allow them or third
parties to obtain unauthorized access to private information.


We recognize that hardware enhancements might be one way to
improve computer security. But treating computer owners as adversaries is not
progress in computer security. The
interoperability, competition, owner control, and similar problems inherent in
the TCG and NCSCB approach are serious enough that we recommend against
adoption of these trusted computing technologies until these problems have been
addressed. Fortunately, we believe these problems are not insurmountable, and
we look forward to working with the industry to resolve them.

JavaScript license information