Is MS new "Vista" both garbage and dangerous?

I'm not a computer geek by any means, but I can read, and I have some idea both of how computers, software and networks operate, and some understanding of the legalities surrounding copying computer stuff.  The system knowledge is, like for so many lawyers, courtesy of firm experience, where it's always one of the lawyers who has to fix the copier and the computers, so as to avoid service call expense and lost time....

But, recently, Microsoft introduced a new operating system, called "Vista".  The real thrust of this O/S seems to be preventing people from copying copyrighted content, not making computers easier and simpler to use.  The big question is:  is this program a piece of garbage (or not)?  The next big question is:  is this MS' attempt to take over and control your computer?

I don't know the answers to these questions - and I'm not sure there is a single-word answer to either.  I present this more to begin a discussion.  

You may ask:  why are you posting this on a blog devoted to crime, justice and social justice issues?  My answer:  (a) If you are reading this, it affects you because it goes through a computer.  (b)  The way this is set up, it appears "switching to Apple or Linux" is intended to be made ineffectual.  ©  I smell antitrust violations (among other things) in this - and violations of the antitrust laws can be (and are) prosecuted criminally.

In reading this article  and this paper from a computer scientist, it seems pretty clear to me at least that MS Vista is not only a piece of garbage, but also an incipient catastrophe on many levels.

Take the time to read both the blog article and the computer scientist's paper, linked above.  They'll take a while, but it's time well spent.  And for those getting foul weather, what else were you planning on doing, anyway?

From the blog article:

The basic story here is that Microsoft is introducing a large suite of features and technology that enable Vista to control and enforce the use of so-called "premium content"...which amounts to copy-protected media such as HD-DVD and Blu-ray disks. This not only takes a lot of software technology to accomplish, but also requires a large amount of new hardware, as well as new driver technology to support it. The end result is that successful playback of this "premium content" demands that a secure connection is made between the media's reader device and the display it is projected onto. If this secure connection cannot be established (whether it be because you are using unsupported hardware connections, unsupported drivers or chipsets, or whatever) or if that connection is even interrupted, playback will silently fail. The results of this can be anything from severely degraded playback results, to a completely black display. Details of how and why this will happen, as well as the ramifications of Microsoft essentially forcing this technology on hardware manufacturers can be found in the paper.

There are a couple possibilities which jump out from the paper - which seems pretty well researched and written by someone with knowledge.  

The first one is the "medical-image-degradation" issue.  This is pretty easy to get one's head around.

The "medical-image-degradation issue" they talk about goes like this. Assume the following:

(1) you have a PC running Vista, and you are using it in a medical situation where the main purpose is to display medical images - e.g. CAT scans, MRI results, or real-time the 6 or 8 electrocardiogram traces of a ward's patients, to a monitor in front of a ward nurse at the workstation.

(2) The computer also has a CD-ROM which, like so many workplace CD-ROMs, spends a lot of work time playing music.

(3)  This music CD is copy-protected (as is just about every one).

(4) There's one tiny part in the PC (or some of the software) which isn't preapproved by Microsoft - or if it was, it isn't working perfectly.  Vista, it appears, will decide this state of affairs means someone's trying to hack and/or copy the copyrighted content.

What Vista will do, to prevent unauthorized reproduction of the copyrighted content, is to degrade (all) the audio/video signals going through the computer - silently and without warning. This appears to be done through compressing and decompressing the datastream.  This compression-decompression regime will introduce "fuzziness" into the video images (and the sound).

This is bad enough.  But, the worse result is inaccurate medical images bearing introduced "artifacts" - stuff which is there doesn't necessarily show up, and stuff which is not there may show up.

Even forbidding playing CDs on the computer may not prevent the problem - say you decide to economize by not buying a new accessory (or specialty program) to replace a perfectly good one that's already there.  The old accessory or program isn't preapproved - same result....

The potential for medical malpractice and fatalities seems, uh, obvious.  This is heightened by the growing practice of sending (via internet) your medical images to a Developing Country, e.g. India, where they are read by some radiologist getting $20k/year and being happy for it, and the results emailed back.

The second issue are the "homeland security implications".

It appears Vista allows MS to decide a particular chip, device, or program is up to no good, and to then deny service to prevent it from being used to copy protected content.  Remotely.  The way it works is MS tells Vista a certain chip, device or program is to be disabled - and all of them are, everywhere.  Until MS decides they've come up with a fix.

Bad enough that innocent you now has a paperweight where your PC was a minute ago.  But, there's more.

Buried deep in the paper is this money quote:

Even without deliberate abuse by malware, the homeland security implications of an external agent being empowered to turn off your IT infrastructure in response to a content leak discovered in some chipset that you coincidentally
happen to be using is a serious concern for potential Vista users. Non-US governments are already nervous enough about using a US-supplied operating system without having this remote DoS [denial-of-service] capability built into the operating system. And like the medical-image-degradation issue, you won't find out about this until it's too late, turning Vista PCs into ticking time bombs if the revocation functionality is ever employed.

This quote: "an external agent being empowered to turn off your IT infrastructure in response to a content leak discovered in some chipset that you coincidentally happen to be using is a serious concern for potential Vista users", I translate to mean: "if Microsoft decides (using their own secret criteria) whether something that's going on in one device (a chip, board, piece of hardware, etc.) indicates someone's trying to hack into copyright-protected content with/through that device, they can turn it off remotely. When MS decides that, they send out a signal which makes useless every single unit of that device everywhere. In other words, they can turn off your computer (and that of everyone else using the same components as you) any time, for any (or no) reason."

Naturally, one can see both the military advantages to shutting down an adversary's computer network - we reportedly did that to Iraq's air defense computers before the 1991 Gulf War.  One can see MS is not going to be likely to see much revenue from export, particularly to foreign government customers.

The commercial advantages - both to MS and to any entity which can figure a way to game MS into blasting a competitor's systems - are equally obvious.

And, wait until it crashes a hospital or an air-traffic control system.

Let's not even talk about what this allows in terms of blocking content....

Third, the problem of old hardware, buying new hardware, and disabling functionality - overtly and indirectly.  The "it looks broken, therefore it's working properly" result.  It seems this is already being reported from "early adopters"....

From the paper:

Vista's content protection mechanism only allows protected content to be sent over interfaces that also have content-protection facilities built in. ... In other words if you've sunk a pile of money into a high-end audio setup fed from an S/PDIF digital output, you won't be able to use it with protected content.
* * *

As well as overt disabling of functionality, there's also covert disabling of functionality. For example PC voice communications rely on automatic echo cancellation (AEC) in order to work. AEC requires feeding back a sample of the audio mix into the echo cancellation subsystem, but with Vista's content protection this isn't permitted any more because this might allow access to premium content. What is permitted is a highly-degraded form of feedback that might possibly still sort-of be enough for some sort of minimal echo cancellation purposes.

The requirement to disable audio and video output plays havoc with standard system operations, because the security policy used is a so-called "system high" policy: The overall sensitivity level is that of the most sensitive data present in the system. So the instant any audio derived from premium content appears on your system, signal degradation and disabling of outputs will occur. What makes this particularly entertaining is the fact that the downgrading/disabling is dynamic, so if the premium-content signal is intermittent or varies (for example music that fades out), various outputs and output quality will fade in and out, or turn on and off, in sync. Normally this behaviour would be a trigger for reinstalling device drivers or even a warranty return of the affected hardware, but in this case it's just a signal that everything is functioning as intended.

Why am I not surprised?

Then, there's the paradox - does this program rely on defying the laws of physics?

The computer scientist's paper also notes that for Vista to operate correctly, it has to defy the laws of physics.  It intends to prevent copying data, but operating computers (particularly through the internet) requires data to be copied multiple times.  In the paper's

Note C, this is explained in particularly hilarious fashion:

Note C: In order for content to be displayed to users, it has to be copied numerous times. For example if you're reading this document on the web then it's been copied from the web server's disk drive to server memory, copied to the server's network buffers, copied across the Internet, copied to your PC's network buffers, copied into main memory, copied to your browser's disk cache, copied to the browser's rendering engine, copied to the render/screen cache, and finally copied to your screen. If you've printed it out to read, several further rounds of copying have occurred. Windows Vista's content protection (and DRM in general) assume that all of this copying can occur without any copying actually occurring, since the whole intent of DRM is to prevent copying. If you're not versed in DRM doublethink this concept gets quite tricky to explain, but in terms of quantum mechanics the content enters a superposition of simultaneously copied and uncopied states until a user collapses its wave function by observing the content (in physics this is called quantum indeterminacy or the observer's paradox). Depending on whether you follow the Copenhagen or many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, things then either get wierd or very wierd. So in order for Windows Vista's content protection to work, it has to be able to violate the laws of physics and create numerous copies that are simultaneously not copies.

In other words, to work, Vista requires something to exist and not exist at the same time (i.e., "a superposition of simultaneously copied and uncopied states").  This is fine, in a quantum mechanics way, but everything crashes into either existence or non-existence ("collapses its wave function") the moment the paradox is observed.  Which, I deduce, would happen at the moment someone tries to actually use the computer with this program in it.

I invite your comments.

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  • Display: Sort:
    Well it is MS, so the answer is yes (none / 0) (#1)
    by Molly Bloom on Thu Dec 28, 2006 at 09:54:13 PM EST
    BW: I am not sure why switching to Linux or Macintosh is made ineffectual.

    why are Apple and Linux affected? (5.00 / 1) (#2)
    by scribe on Fri Dec 29, 2006 at 09:53:56 AM EST
    From the beginning of the computer scientist's paper linked to in my post:
    These issues affect not only users of Vista but the entire PC industry, since the effects of the protection measures extend to cover all hardware and software that will ever come into contact with Vista, even if it's not used directly with Vista (for example hardware in a Macintosh computer or on a Linux server).

    What's behind this?
    Hollywood worried about people pirating its product, and Microsoft trying to capture and control the computer market.

    The Hollywood part:

    Vista includes various requirements for "robustness" in which the content industry, through "hardware robustness rules", dictates design requirements to hardware manufacturers.  The level of control the content producers have over technical design details is nothing short of amazing.  As security researcher Ed Felten quoted from Microsoft documents on his freedom-to-tinker web site about a year ago (http://www.freedom-to-tinker.com/?p=882):


    "The evidence [of security] must be presented to Hollywood and other content owners, and they must agree that it provides the required level of security.
      Written proof from at least three of the major Hollywood studios is required".

    So if you design a new security system, you can't get it supported in Windows Vista until well-known computer security experts like Disney, MGM, and 20th Century-Fox give you the go-ahead.  It's absolutely astonishing to find paragraphs like that in what are supposed to be Windows technical documents, since it gives Hollywood studios veto rights over Windows security mechanisms.

    From the end of the paper, the no-escape through Linux/Apple and Microsoft taking over, in more detail:

    The only reason I can imagine why Microsoft would put its programmers, device vendors, third-party developers, and ultimately its customers, through this much pain is because once this copy protection is entrenched, Microsoft will completely own the distribution channel.  In the same way that Apple has managed to acquire a monopolistic lock-in on their music distribution channel (an example being the Motorola ROKR fiasco, which was so crippled by Apple-imposed restrictions that it was dead the moment it appeared), so Microsoft will totally control the premium-content distribution channel.  Not only will they be able to lock out any competitors, but because they will then represent the only available distribution channel they'll be able to dictate terms back to the content providers whose needs they are nominally serving in the same way that Apple has already dictated terms back to the music industry: Play by Apple's rules, or we won't carry your content. The result will be a technologically enforced monopoly that makes their current de-facto Windows monopoly seem like a velvet glove in comparison.

    Overall, Vista's content-protection functionality seems like an astonishingly short-sighted piece of engineering, concentrating entirely on content protection with no consideration given to the enormous repercussions of the measures employed.  It's something like the PC equivalent of the (hastily dropped) proposal mooted in Europe to put RFID tags into high-value banknotes as an anti-counterfeiting measure, completely ignoring the fact that the major users of this technology would end up being criminals who would use it to
    remotely identify the most lucrative robbery targets.

    The worst thing about all of this is that there's no escape.  Hardware manufacturers will have to drink the kool-aid (and the reference to mass
    suicide here is deliberate [Note L]) in order to work with Vista: "There is no requirement to sign the [content-protection] license; but without a
    certificate, no premium content will be passed to the driver".  Of course as a device manufacturer you can choose to opt out, if you don't mind your device only ever being able to display low-quality, fuzzy, blurry video and audio when premium content is present, while your competitors don't have this (artificially-created) problem.

    As a user, there is simply no escape.  Whether you use Windows Vista, Windows XP, Windows 95, Linux, FreeBSD, OS X, Solaris (on x86), or almost any other OS, Windows content protection will make your hardware more expensive, less reliable, more difficult to program for, more difficult to support, more vulnerable to hostile code, and with more compatibility problems.  Because Windows dominates the market and device vendors are unlikely to design and manufacture two different versions of their products, non-Windows users will be paying for Windows Vista content-protection measures in products even if they never run Windows on them.


    Maybe (none / 0) (#3)
    by aw on Fri Dec 29, 2006 at 10:08:46 AM EST
    they should have named it "Glimpse."

    'longest suicide note in history' (none / 0) (#4)
    by Edger on Fri Dec 29, 2006 at 10:29:15 AM EST
    Microsoft is risking annoying its customer base and users in a bid to corner the market for home distribution of premium content.

    Gutmann argues that hackers will find it just as easy to bypass the content protection mechanisms of Vista as they have with other versions of the OS.


    I wonder, scribe (none / 0) (#5)
    by Edger on Fri Dec 29, 2006 at 10:55:06 AM EST
    It may be that the Windows Services(operating system modules) required for Vista to do this can be disabled, leaving only "essential" windows services loaded and run at startup.

    I don't use Vista but I'll look a little deeper at it.

    Meanwhile here are some things to consider:

    Disable Vista windows services

    Identifying Essential Windows Services: Part 1

    Windows Vista Build 5365 Tweak Guide

    More... (none / 0) (#6)
    by Edger on Fri Dec 29, 2006 at 11:03:42 AM EST
    Vista Beta 1 Service Guide: Part 1
    Windows Vista Beta 1 has several new services and features that we do not all need. I have gone through the list of services that are running in Windows Vista Beta 1 and compiled a list of services that you can safely disable. Before I get started, it is necessary to understand how to disable services in Windows Vista. Similar to other version of Windows, you will be using the Services MMC.  Follow the steps below to get started with the Services applet.
    Vista Beta 1 Service Guide: Part 2

    More is better... (none / 0) (#7)
    by Edger on Fri Dec 29, 2006 at 11:11:14 AM EST
    Blu-ray, HD DVD DRM busted
    p2p news / p2pnet: The Big Four record label and Big Six movie studio cartels are hoping their already eye-popping profits will be further enhanced by the new Blu-ray and HD DVD formats.

    DRM is short for Digital Restrictions Management or C.R.A.P., as ZDNet's David Berlind prefers to call it.

    The term is, "often confused with copy protection and technical protection measures (TPM)," says Wikipedia. "These two terms refer to technologies that control or restrict the use and access of digital media content on electronic devices with such technologies installed."

    On Blu-ray and HD DVD, "For fear of piracy, Hollywood had the developers install a cornucopia of copy prevention mechanisms on them," says Heise Security, going on:

    "For instance, the film data on the disks are protected by means of the Advanced Access Content System (AACS). Digital output only reaches the monitor via connections encrypted by means of High Bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP). This copy protection chain is designed to ensure that no unencrypted data can be grabbed."

    But, surprise, surprise, "this security chain has a giant hole," says the story. "Computer magazine c't has discovered that the first software players running on Windows XP allow screenshots of the movies to be created in full resolution. To do so, you only need to press the Print key on your keyboard while the movie is running."

    More... (none / 0) (#8)
    by Edger on Fri Dec 29, 2006 at 11:30:05 AM EST
    Last security news
    # Bluesoleil (general bluetooth) drivers update 2.3.060728...
    # Blu-ray, HD DVD DRM busted...
    # FBI database hacked...
    # Phishing by phone...
    # Microsoft France site cracked...
    # Social networks poised to shape Net's future...
    # Windows Vista Beta 2 Available for Public Download...
    # Hacker Steals Energy Department Employee Data...
    # PQI Introduces 64GB NAND Flash 2.5" Disks...
    # MSIE (mshtml.dll) OBJECT tag vulnerability...
    Last direct downloads
    # Microsoft Windows Vista Beta 2

    hacking it (none / 0) (#9)
    by scribe on Fri Dec 29, 2006 at 06:29:20 PM EST
    I don't know how valid this is, but the computer scientist whose paper I linked in, estimates that once hackers turn their attention to the Vista system, it will take a decent hacker about a day to break through the copy protection.

    For what it's worth.


    Maybe a little longer the first time (none / 0) (#10)
    by Edger on Fri Dec 29, 2006 at 08:18:22 PM EST
    but the hacker communities tend to share information rather quickly, and newer, better, faster ways develop pretty fast. Vista won't be an OS written from the ground up but will have much in it based on past OS development. The code may change but the algorithms and logic flow will be similar.

    UPDATE: did MS try to buy off bloggers? (none / 0) (#11)
    by scribe on Tue Jan 02, 2007 at 04:16:53 PM EST
    Here's an article, detailing that just prior to the holiday, Microsoft was implicated in sending new machines loaded with Vista to selected bloggers, gratis.  One suspects MS was hoping for good reviews, but I'm not sure it's turning out that way....

    MS can tell Linux OS what to do? (none / 0) (#12)
    by sweatpants on Tue Jan 09, 2007 at 03:57:02 PM EST
    if Microsoft decides (using their own secret criteria) whether something that's going on in one device (a chip, board, piece of hardware, etc.) indicates someone's trying to hack into copyright-protected content with/through that device, they can turn it off remotely. When MS decides that, they send out a signal which makes useless every single unit of that device everywhere. In other words, they can turn off your computer (and that of everyone else using the same components as you) any time, for any (or no) reason.

    Forgive me if I seem ignorant about these issues, but how can MS send a signal to disable a device on a computer that is running, say, Linux?  Why would my Linux operating system accept any instructions to do anything to my computer or components?

    Possible in theory (none / 0) (#13)
    by Edger on Tue Jan 09, 2007 at 04:50:58 PM EST
    but not likely in practice. Microsofts pressure will force hardware manufacturers (makers of the chips on the boards inside your machine) to standardize production because Linux and Vista both can run on the same hardware, leaving the capability for Microsoft to do this to you - but in practice it will be their code inside Vista that will switch off the relevant hardware.

    If you run linux the only way it could happen to you is if your machine was hacked over the net, and it is highly unlikely anyone would hack into your machine only to do that. If they did they would be inside your machine for other reasons - this would be the least of your problems.

    IOW - stay with Linux.


    Yes on BOTH accounts. Yes Vista is bth garbage and (none / 0) (#14)
    by hoyeru on Wed Jan 31, 2007 at 10:36:03 AM EST
    Sure it is. But what you are presenting in your fictitious situation has already been talked about, discussed and dismissed on /. (that's slashdot for you non geeks). if I was using a 50,000 equipment to to run an MRI and using it to listen to Mp3s a the same time I'd be fired. So the situation presented cannot really happen the way you present it. Nice try though.

    The solution to not using Vista is so simple.
    DO NOT buy an OEM PC, instead, get somebody to build you the new PC, then use 98 or 2000 or XP on it. Or become a geek and learn Linux. It's the 21 century after all. And PCs are NOT TVs. One MUST spend some time and efford to learn how to use them properly.

    Personally, I just stared using XP 2 months ago. Before that I was using 98 and was totally satisfied with it. I only switched to XP because I can write in my other language - slavic.