Windows 8 is scheduled to be released to the public on October 26. Last year, the company announced that it would be using a secure boot process, using cryptographic keys to recognise the authenticity of the system that attempts to start up.
This has caused some disquiet among users of other operating systems as it means that hardware certified for Windows 8 will not be able to boot such operating systems. Two GNU/Linux distributions, Red Hat and Ubuntu, have outlined ways in which they will get their distributions to boot on hardware that is certified for Windows 8.
However, given that it has been convicted of monopoly practices on the x86 platform in the past, Microsoft has said that there will be a way to turn secure boot off on this platform.
On the ARM platform, however, a device which is sold with Windows 8 will be able to run only that version of Windows.
But why secure boot and why now? Some weeks ago, security guru Paul Ducklin made some educated guesses about what might be the reasoning behind such thinking.
Going to the source is always the best way to understand things so I decided to ask. Microsoft's PR handlers in Australia agreed to send the following questions from me about secure boot to the company for answers:
- Is there some seminal event that led Microsoft to decide on secure boot? Like, say, an outbreak of infection by a major destructive boot virus or viruses?
- What in your opinion are the upsides of secure boot?
- And, conversely, the downsides, if any?
- Cynics may say that you are again trying to lock out other operating systems to maintain your market dominance in the PC arena. What would you say to that?
- Secure boot depends on keys. That keys are not sacrosanct has been shown by the recent episode of the Flame virus. So, with secure boot, are we looking at more of what security expert Bruce Schneier calls security theatre?
A week later, I received a reply from the PR handler.
"Apologies for the delay in getting back to you," it read. "Unfortunately the only information I was able to source comes from the Building Windows 8 Blog where you can find information about Secure Boot and SmartScreen and Windows Defender enhancements."
Given that I had sent these questions to the company, I tried to clarify the source of these links. "Were these links given to you by someone at the company or did they ask you to look for something on your own to pass on to me?" was my next query.
Alas, I have yet to receive a reply after five days.
The two web pages mentioned in the reply were ones I had already read - last year. In them, Steven Sinofsky, president of the Windows and Windows Live division, explains the process of secure boot in great detail with some nice colourful charts, and also gives an overview of the additional security that will be available in Windows 8 compared to earlier versions of Windows.
They tell one exactly nothing as to why secure boot was adopted.
It seems reasonable to assume, thus, that Microsoft wants no part of any reasoned discussion on the issue and does not feel accountable to the public about what it does.