Too Busy For Words - the PaulWay Blog

Sat 29th Oct, 2011

Who are you trusting

The "Secure Boot" proposal from Microsoft - to turn on digital signatures on new UEFI-enabled motherboards so that only signed operating systems get booted, allowing them to get motherboard manufacturers to lock Linux out under the guise of "preventing malware" - is worrying enough as it is. Several large Linux companies - Canonical and Red Hat amongst them - have already been working on white papers, and an expert in the field has proposed IMO a better solution to the problem. But really, if you think about it, Microsoft should be working to prevent the whole thing working at all.

Why? Very simple. Just think of the number of state-level attacks on software and Internet infrastructure in recent years. "Hackers" getting fraudulent SSL certificates issued for * and other sites. People requesting Mozilla remove CNNIC from the certificate authority list because of the Chinese government similar faking of SSL certificates. Malware created by the German government for spying on people. British companies selling malware to the Egyptian government. The list goes on.

One can easily imagine any government in the world telling motherboard manufacturers that they need to install the government's own public keys in order to import motherboards into the country. It's obvious in the case of countries like Iran, Syria, and Jordan, and it's no stretch to imagine the US, Australian or any other 'Western' government doing it under the guise of "protecting our citizens". After all, we do want the government to snoop on those evil child molesters, dont' we? Or at least, the people the government tells us are child molesters. Or, at least, the people who turn out to have child abuse material on their computers after the government has done their investigation. They wouldn't use those powers to spy on ordinary citizens, right? Right?

Wrong. For state-level actors, it's not about the ordinary citizens. It's about protecting the status quo. It's about protecting their access to information and protecting their powers. The idea that someone can lock government spyware out of their computer has an easy solution - make sure that the computer itself will always install the spyware. And they have the power to go to motherboard manufactuers and get these keys installed. It's a no-brainer for them, really.

I also have no doubt that secure booting to a secure operating system will do little to stop real malware. There's always flaws to be exploited in something as large and kludgy as Microsoft's software. The phenomena Microsoft is allegedly trying to protect against - rootkits that start at boot time - are a relatively small portion of the malware spectrum. And if you're going to let an unsigned binary run - the alternative being to lock all but the large players out of the Windows software market - then malware is already exploiting the user's trust in the system and their lack of knowledge about what is good software and what isn't. "Your PC is already infected" and all that; it's trojan horses all the way down.

I don't think Microsoft is going to care that state-level players can exploit the system their proposing. It's not like they don't already give the source code to the Chinese government and so forth. But I think the rest of the PC using world has a right to be very worried about a system that will tell you that it's running signed software without you being able to choose which signatories you trust. And choice is never going to be on the agenda with Microsoft.

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