Is Windows 8 an NSA trojan?
That really does sound a bit extreme even for a cynic – but it’s a question that is being seriously asked and needs a serious answer. It came to a head earlier this week when Zeit Online published a story suggesting that various federal German agencies had come to the conclusion that Windows 8 is not safe for use by government.
We need to put this into context with two technologies: UEFI and TPM. The Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI) is a specification that is meant to replace the Basic Input/Output System (BIOS) firmware interface on PCs. It provides many advantages over the original BIOS, but more pertinently here, it can be used to provide ‘secure boot’. Microsoft has come in for some serious criticism over implementing UEFI secure boot on Windows 8 – sufficient criticism for a Spanish open source group, Hispalinux, to level a complaint against Microsoft with the European Union for anti-competitive behaviour. Much of that criticism has died down as it has become clear that serious power users can get round it. However, implemented to its full potential it could enforce an Apple-like walled garden around non-Microsoft manufactured PCs.
TPM – trusted platform module – is a separate issue. This is a chip that controls what can and what cannot run on your computer. It can indeed provide additional security, since if only known good software is allowed to run, then any bad software (viruses and trojans and worms and so on) cannot easily run (never say never!). And there isn’t really an issue, since if you don’t want it, you can just turn it off.
Enter TPM version 2; which is what has upset the German government agencies. Microsoft intends to employ it with Windows 8. Windows 8 will be delivered with TPM 2.0 turned on, and no way to turn it off. But for new versions of Office or completely new Microsoft software, Microsoft clearly needs to be able to bypass TPM – and it has its own key to do so. The user does not have a key to do so.
And this is where the NSA comes in. Given everything we have learned about the NSA over the last few months, does anyone really believe that Microsoft will not willingly or at best under secret coercion be forced to give those same keys to the NSA and probably the FBI as well?
Some of us may even remember the NSAKey discovered in Windows NT by Andrew Fernandes in 1999. At the time, Microsoft denied the key had anything to do with the NSA, but frankly only the gullible believed them, and most people accept that it has been present in every version of Windows ever since. Anybody who believes that Microsoft and the NSA don’t go hand in hand is living in cloud cuckoo land under heavy surveillance.
The problem is that with access to a TPM 2 key that is always on, the NSA or the FBI or both could come and go at will with no-one being any the wiser. Which is exactly how they like to operate.
So how likely is all this? Professor Ross Anderson from Cambridge University wrote back in October 2011,
We’ve also been starting to think about the issues of law enforcement access that arose during the crypto wars and that came to light again with CAs. These issues are even more wicked with trusted boot. If the Turkish government compelled Microsoft to include the Tubitak key in Windows so their intelligence services could do man-in-the-middle attacks on Kurdish MPs’ gmail, then I expect they’ll also tell Microsoft to issue them a UEFI key to authenticate their keylogger malware.
And if the Turkish government can do that, what could the US government do?
I asked him what he thought now, and whether Windows 8 really is dangerous for governments. He said,
Non-US governments had better think carefully about their policy on all this. Until now you could grab the Linux source, go through it, tweak it till you were happy, recompile it and issue it to officials in your ministry of defence. Serious players like China even sent engineers to Redmond to inspect the copy of Windows that would be sold in their country. But most states don’t have enough competent engineers to do that.
Microsoft’s demand that the industry configure all Windows-branded machines so they’ll only boot signed operating systems will make life significantly harder for medium-sized non-aligned governments. And now that Microsoft’s admitted making NSA access easier, the idea of using COTS Windows is not emotionally compatible with the existence of large pampered signals intelligence bureaucracies, even if there isn’t a reasonable engineering alternative.
And so we return to the original question: is Windows 8 an NSA trojan? Yes. Microsoft and the NSA and the Obama administration will, of course, deny it. And the NSA — post Snowden — may never even use it. But that doesn’t alter the fact that the capability exists and could be used. A nuclear weapon is no less a nuclear weapon just because it hasn’t been used. And Windows 8 is an NSA trojan.