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    The Trusted Platform Module

    Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic, January 08, 2006

    Abstract: There is a strong chill in the air as PC manufacturers move towards installation of Trusted Platform Module (TPM) chips in personal computers this year. These chips assign a permanent unique identifier to each computer in which they are installed, effecting ending anonymous internet use. Advocates for the chips argue that the TPM technology may be used to make online transactions such as banking and shopping more secure, reducing identity theft and online fraud. However, critics contend that the technology will be used by the music, movie, and software industries to restrict consumers’ use of copyrighted content, and further erode traditional fair use rights under copyright law.

    According to a recent article in MSNBC, the PC industry is moving towards broad installation of security chips called Trusted Platform Modules (TPMs) into PCs; currently over 20 million PCs worldwide already have the chip installed. The TPM chip was created by a large group of over one hundred companies, led by AMD, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Microsoft, and Sun. These chips are part of the PC hardware, permanently assigning a unique identifier to each computer, and theoretically permitting virtually fool-proof verification of your identity to other computers on the internet. The chip may also verify that the software running on the computer has not been altered so as to pose a risk to other computers to which it connects; in other words, that it may be trusted. Although the chips are currently installed primarily on corporate computers for purposes of securing the corporations’ networks, this year TPMs will be installed in many consumer models as well. Eventually, TPMs could be installed in any and every piece of hardware, including desktops, laptops, TVs, digital recorders and cell phones.

    Advocates for the TPM chips point to a number of reasons why the chips would be useful. For example, they could permit online merchants, banks, and other online services to verify that you are who you say you are, reducing online fraud and identity theft. For example, even if your account name and password were stolen, a thief couldn’t access your account unless they were also using your computer. In fact, merchants and banks would not even necessarily require passwords, as they could identify you through your computer’s TPM. Consumers could also verify that a website was a legitimate merchant site, and not a fraudulent site. TPM technology could also be used to encrypt emails, and to protect the files on your computer in case your computer was stolen.

    Although advocates for the TMP chips say that the chips may provide virtually foolproof verification of your identity to other computers, some critics have argued that hackers will be able to break this encryption as well. Further, by ending internet anonymity, TPMs have huge implications for user privacy, for example by allowing for easier tracking of individual computers by law enforcement or other agencies, or by inhibiting online free speech.

    Some critics have argued that the main driving force behind the TPM technology is from copyright content owners, such as the music, movie, and software industries, seeking to control how consumers may use their copyrighted content. There is serious concern that these chips may be used to control digital rights management, limiting consumers’ abilities to use their music, movies, and software as they wish on their computers, and further eroding consumers’ abilities to exercise their fair use rights under copyright law.

    Digital Rights Management (DRM) and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) have already eroded consumers’ abilities to make fair use of the media they purchase through software controls. Under traditional copyright fair use doctrine, consumers are generally permitted to do things such as: make a back-up copy of software they purchased; listen to music they purchased from their home or car stereo as well as their computer; change the format of purchased music (such as from CD to mp3 format) in order to listen to it on different media players; and record a television show on VHS in order to watch it later. Fair use may also encompass use of a copyrighted work in a parody, for educational or research uses, or for criticism. DRM attempts to lock up consumers’ abilities to use a copyrighted work by restricting where and how it may be played, restrictions that may curtail a user’s fair use rights. The DMCA makes circumventing DRM a criminal act.

    TPM technology expands the power of DRM by giving media companies access to hardware controls. For example, if you attempted to play music from a CD on your computer, the CD could examine the TPM to verify whether it can be played from that computer under the license agreement. In this way, the music company could restrict the CD to only play on a particular computer, or only play on a single type of media player, such as a CD player. It could also use the TPM to verify whether the user is permitted to make any copies, send copies to others, or whether it is supposed to self-destruct after a certain number of playings. An online music store could use the TPM to verify that your computer has certain copy-protection measures, and could refuse to sell you music unless it does. Similar restrictions could be placed on the movies or the software you buy. Even Apple has moved towards use of TPMs: as Apple has moved towards using Intel processors, the company has reportedly installed TPM chips ( in some of its computers, in order to prevent the Mac OSX operating system from being installed on non-Mac hardware.

    With TPM chips installed in every computer, it becomes much more difficult for consumers to avoid overly restrictive DRM and pressure companies into providing more consumer friendly products. Further, these controls may not be limited to your computer in the future, but could be installed in any hardware, such as your TV, cell phone, or digital media player. In combination with DRM and the DMCA, TPM technology may prevent otherwise legal use of digital content under copyright fair use doctrine.


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