As the joke goes, on the Internet nobody knows you’re 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 you’re 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 source.
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.”)
(MSNBC is a Microsoft - NBC joint venture.)
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 we’ve 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 — we’re 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