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When Microsoft announced its entry into the “trusted computing” arena in June, the requisite witticism within the IT industry was that putting “Microsoft” next to “trusted” is an oxymoron. Four months later, many smirks have disappeared as the plans progress and the true significance of code-name Palladium becomes ever more clear.

The software, which is slated for future versions of the Windows operating system, looks on paper to be an all-good system for increasing privacy and security. The consequences of its deployment in the real world, however, will likely be decreased user control over the contents of their computers and a serious increase in Microsoft’s stranglehold on desktops.

Palladium is a big deal. It will require a major re-jiggering of how computers are built and run, with changes to hardware, software and even the data itself. First, it establishes a secure computing space, which means that as a computer starts up, the software will verify that the hardware components such as hard drives can’t be read by unauthenticated programs under any known circumstances. Palladium will also check the computer’s central processing unit’s serial number before kicking into operation; both Intel and AMD have already said they’re willing to include such identification. Before any program is run, Palladium will make sure it’s authenticated via a digital certificate. Stored data will be encrypted and will only be decrypted by authenticated programs. Apparently, however, it will not require a new mousepad.

Although Microsoft touts Palladium as a way to keep computers virus free and to give users control over what information they give out, critics were quick to notice that it just so happens to be an ideal platform for the management of digital content-MP3s, ebooks, digital movies, etc.-after it’s been downloaded onto someone’s computer. As Peter Biddle, the Palladium Product Unit Manager, explained to me last week, Palladium isn’t a digital rights management  (DRM) platform in the traditional sense; it does, however, enable DRM systems to govern content after it has entered a client computer. But Palladium isn’t really an enabler. After all, users can already agree to a variety of rules governing what they can do with digital content. For example, I can buy an MP3 and agree not to copy it. No one needs Palladium to enter into such agreements. Palladium isn’t an enabler. It’s an enforcer.

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