Microsoft's Secret Plan to Secure the PC

You've heard of Trustworthy Computing, and the massive corporate remodeling going on at Microsoft where every developer, product manager, and executive assistant has been asked to rethink everything they do in the context of security. Well, that's just the tip of the iceberg. Secretly, the company has been working on a plan to rearchitect the PC from the ground up, to address the security, privacy, and intellectual property theft issues that dog the industry today. Inexplicably, the company pulled an Apple and chose to detail its plans solely to Newsweek, so we only have that one report to work from. But if Newsweek's take on the plan is correct, and consumers and businesses buy into the new devices that would result, the PC landscape will soon change forever.

The plan is code-named Palladium, a reference to a statue of the Greek goddess Athena that one guarded ancient Troy from attack. Palladium involves a number of hardware and software solutions that will, in part, be implemented as part of a future Windows version--possibly Longhorn, due in 2004--that requires specific hardware to work. "This isn't just about solving problems, but expanding new realms of possibilities in the way people live and work with computers," says product manager Mario Juarez.

Microsoft designed Palladium around the following ideals:

  • Palladium will tell you who you're dealing with online, and what they're doing. It will uniquely identify you to your PC and can limit what arrives (and runs on) that computer. Information that comes in from the Internet will be verified before you can access it.
  • Palladium protects information using encryption to seal data so that "snoops and thieves are thwarted." The system can maintain document integrity so that documents can't be altered without your knowledge.
  • Palladium stops viruses and worms. The system won't run unauthorized programs, preventing viruses from trashing your system.
  • Palladium stops spam. Spam will be stopped before it even hits your email inbox. Unsolicited mail that you might actually want to receive will be allowed through if it has credentials that meet your user-defined standards.
  • Palladium safeguards privacy. In addition to the system's ability to seal data on your PC, Palladium can also seal data sent across the Internet using software agents that ensure the data reaches only the proper people. Newsweek reports that the agent has been nicknamed "My Man," a goof on ".NET My Services," "My Documents," and other similar names at Microsoft.
  • Palladium controls information after it's sent from your PC. Using Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology, Palladium can be used to securely distribute music, movies, and other intellectual property securely over the Internet. Movie studios and the recording industry could use this technology to let their customers exercise their fair use rights to copy audio CDs and movies, for example. "It's a funny thing," says Bill Gates. "We came at this thinking about music, but then we realized that e-mail and documents were far more interesting domains." Gates says that Palladium could ensure that email designated as private could not be forwarded or copied to other people, for example. Or, the Newsweek reports reads, "you could create Word documents that could be read only in the next week. In all cases, it would be the user, not Microsoft, who sets these policies."

Few of the concepts behind Palladium are new, but what makes this system unique and--dare I say it--innovative is Microsoft's ability to rally the industry around this technology and push it through to fruition. Leading chip vendors Intel and AMD have signed on to Palladium, though Intel was originally reluctant to join. And though no names are yet available, major Microsoft partners in financial services, health care and government--areas where security is a prime concern--have likely signed up already as well. "I have a hard time imagining that businesses wouldn't want this," says Microsoft Group Vice President Jim Allchin. Once the enterprise is locked in, Microsoft expects Palladium-compatible applications and services to arrive, thus kicking off the inevitable consumer-oriented push.

However, the success of Palladium isn't a given at all. The anti-Microsoft crowd is louder than ever these days, thanks to the company's drawn-out antitrust battle and mounting security concerns. And Palladium would arguably extend Microsoft's OS dominance even further, since it's a Windows-only technology. Microsoft counters this criticism by explaining that Palladium can be ported to other platforms easily enough. "We don't blink at the thought of putting Palladium on your Palm, on the telephone, on your wristwatch," says Palladium software architect Brian Willman. Presumably, Linux and Mac ports would also be considered.

And how will individuals react to news that their every move will be recorded and analyzed? As the shifting security landscape in the post-9/11 world has proven, people are more resilient to such change if the perceived security level is higher. And though a vocal minority will likely find much to complain about--think Slashdot--average consumers, IT administrators and decision makers, and other people responsible for actually paying for this technology will probably support it wholeheartedly. I can already imagine the sort of email responses this article will get--after all, "Microsoft security" is an oxymoron of sorts these days--but I also can feel a grudging inevitability to Palladium, or something like it. Hang on to your seats, folks. Your next PC upgrade may be a completely different beast altogether.

TAGS: Security
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