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'Secure' boot: much to be scared about Featured

In three short months, Windows 8 will be upon us. And with it will come the phenomenon known as "secure boot", one that is going to have an extraordinary effect on the lives of most computer users.

Few of these effects have been talked of, apart from the relative obscurity of technical mailing lists. There has been a lot of uninformed speculation, and a great deal of FUD. Strangely, some of this FUD has come from people in GNU/Linux circles. There are exceptions, though.

It is obvious that Microsoft laid down the law to its OEMs about secure boot a long time before it was talked about in public. One needs time to digest and then begin to plan implementation of such a change. The first mention by the company was in the documentation made available when a developer's release of Windows 8 was made last year.

One of the first public discourses on the process was by Red Hat developer Matthew Garrett in September last year. But Garrett did everyone a singular disservice by saying, at the end of a detailed blog post, that there was no need to worry at the moment. Sure.

Where did the push for secure boot come from? Renowned security expert Richard Forno says that to his knowledge, of recent times there has not been any major malware that gained entry through the boot process.

"To my knowledge, no. However I am not as in-tune with every latest security development these days so I can't say for certain," Forno told iTWire. "That said, I find secure boot problematic from a potential 'abuse' scenario where a given PC can only run 'approved' operating systems .... that has the potential to cause all sorts of competitive concerns, especially for those who want to run alternative OSs on mainstream hardware."

Fast forward to 2012 and we find two Linux companies, Red Hat and Canonical, putting forward their methods of dealing with secure boot. From what has been detailed, it is clear that each company has been thinking more about its own survival in the Windows 8 world, rather than whether all Linux companies will be put out of business.

As I've pointed out before, it is simply amazing to think that all the big names in the technology field - IBM, Intel, HP, Google, Facebook, and Oracle to name a few - could not band together on this issue and fight it out. No, they were too busy with their own infighting. A common problem, a common foe did not result in unity over at least this issue. Are they serious about surviving in the industry?

Hardware manufacturers were unlikely to raise any objection, even though their margins have been eroded greatly by Microsoft.

"But they still depend on M$ for their livelihood and to sell products, plus MS needs to ensure its OSs support the drivers needed by the hardware manufacturers used by the OEMs," says Forno.

"Thus, the OEMs have a symbiotic relationship with what could be interpreted more cynically as their kowtowing to Microsoft. In this scenario, and keeping in mind the potential marketplace concerns about locking out competitors or locking up the hardware market (think of how Apple locks up the Mac hardware and OS market) you might be able to make the analogy about the terrorist and their hostage; only problem is, in this case, it's unclear who is the hostage and who is the terrorist."

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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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