Microsoft and Hollywood hit the control button

Viruses, worms and hackers no longer rate in the IT threat stakes, according to one of Australia's most respected information security and cryptography developers.

Professor Bill Caelli, AO, of Queensland University of Technology, warned a Sydney audience of CIOs this week that the biggest immediate threat to the future of information technology is a Microsoft-fronted attempt by the content and copyright owners' lobby to seize control of IT hardware through a project codenamed Nexus.

Speaking at the CIO Magazine Conference in Sydney, Caelli told Computerworld that a combined Microsoft/Intel initiative due to be announced in a matter of days seeks to configure future Intel-based hardware to enforce copyright.

"I believe they're going to announce a sub-operating system that will not be accessible to the end user. This will run on new add-on hardware associated with the Intel processor. While you can use Nexus for secure operation, it will also enforce digital rights management.

"Technically, we suspect that Intel will have to work with Microsoft to introduce a new protected state of operation inside the Intel processor or its subsidiary chips. This is codenamed Ring-0 (Ring minus zero)," Caelli said.

The legal implications should Nexus materialise would also appear onerous for both consumers and OEMs.

Caelli warns that legislation already exists, here and in the US, that makes it illegal to tamper with the access and/or encryption control mechanisms of certain devices – a situation that many PC OEMs are yet to confront. Indeed the very concept of ownership of the computer that you buy is in question:

"Imagine you bought a Holden and the bonnet was welded down to stop you looking at the motor – there'd be an outcry… but in the IT game they get away with it, and one more freedom is lost. What's really important is for the first time that content holders will be able to control your device – in the past there was no control over the device; you didn't see the manufacturers of LPs attempting to control record players. That whole philosophy is about to change. It's draconian because you are changing the rights of ownership," Caelli says.

Despite its clearly conspiratorial overtones (best left until last), Caelli sees Nexus as more a matter of laziness on behalf of content holders who aim to pass the liability and cost burden of incorporating product security onto OEMs through political pressure.

"The lobbying by the content industry is unbelievable. How come that industry gets the ear of government and IT security doesn't? At the moment the content industry is trying to say that they want to do little or nothing themselves to protect their own property. They want protection, but they don't want to pay for it. Why should they put it on us to look after them? It's about time the legislators asked the [content] industry to start looking after itself. This has been used in [documents] for hundreds of years – the owner of the copyright takes reasonable measures to protect their interests."

Caelli suggests a better solution would be to adopt available technologies to allow copyright holders to track digital transactions of material, thus making ownership transparent, and enforceable rather than allowing the likes of the RIAA, Disney, MIPI or Microsoft the right to kill your machine.

"It's technically quite feasible [for] a music shop, say Sanity or whoever, to allow me to download the latest Brittney Spears or Cradle of Filth album… so that it personalises my individual purchase to the parameters I have set. If I choose to copy it to my Internet server, then that's traceable back to me," Caelli says.

As for where the moniker Nexus originated, one can only speculate – although veteran author of novella, Star Trek - The Final Nexus, self-dubbed the "astonishing sequel to the New York Times best seller, The Chain of Attack”, may yet provide veteran author Gene DeWeese with a few royalties.

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