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c’t 3003: How nailed up is Windows 11? | Criticism of TPM, DRM & Co

Windows 11 is out – and there’s a lot of controversy about it. In addition to strange processor compatibility, TPM 2.0 is the focus of criticism. C’t 3003 clarifies why this is so.

Transcript of the video:

In this video I explain what you actually need this TPM 2.0 for in Windows and why it is so criticized. And above all: what actually happens when I turn it off? What does Microsoft say about it? I try to make all of this as easy to understand as possible.

Dear hackers, dear internet surfers, welcome to c’t 3003.

We have already made some videos about Windows 11, I hope you are not annoyed by it yet – but such a big Windows update only comes every few years; in addition, Windows is installed on 80 percent of all computers in Germany; so there should be interest. However, you criticized our videos for being too tame with Microsoft and not criticizing the hardware requirements more strongly.

The thing is: We are definitely critical of Microsoft, but maybe we should also look at the whole thing in a slightly differentiated way. And I’ll try that now.

First the facts: Windows 11 requires (at least theoretically) a so-called Trusted Platform Module according to the TPM 2.0 specification. This is an additional safety controller independent of the rest of the system, i.e. independent of the main processor, RAM and mass storage – although it can also be built into the processor. The TPM 2.0 can store data securely and protected from malware and perform some cryptographic operations.

Ok, to put it more simply: with TPM 2.0 you can save things that the rest of the system has no access to – i.e. malware cannot tamper with anything.

Important: TPM 2.0 works completely passively, so it doesn’t do anything on its own. It cannot actively influence the boot process or the start of programs. In cooperation with the secure boot function of the BIOS – which is also required for Windows 11 – it can prevent the computer from booting if the BIOS has been manipulated by malware. In addition, you can use the security chip to make the Windows Bitlocker encryption more secure and connect it to the hardware: If you remove the hard drive, you can no longer access the data. Both definitely make sense. By the way: If the mainboard breaks, you can decrypt the encryption with a recovery key.

The login method also uses Windows Hello [Lionel-Richie-Clip] on request TPM. On request, the keyword is: Both Bitlocker and Windows Hello [Lionel-Richie-Clip] namely also work without TPM. However, both are then easier to attack.

So far there is almost no freely available software that requires TPM; One of the few is the multiplayer game Valorant with its anti-cheat tool Vanguard – since the beginning of October 2021 Valorant has only been running with activated TPM 2.0 and Secure Boot. Otherwise there is also company software that requires TPM; but that has been the case for a long time.

Otherwise, TPM is currently not doing anything in Windows 11 as far as we know. To be on the safe side, I asked Microsoft again what the specific effects of using Windows without TPM as a private person. Then it said, “Microsoft won’t comment” – and on top of that, we got a link to a Microsoft support article that explains how to install Windows 11 without a TPM. And even if you emphasize that there can be compatibility problems and that you don’t necessarily get all updates without TPM, Microsoft itself gives tips on how to switch off the TPM requirement.

The fact is: at the moment it is not the case that anything does not work without a TPM. But with TPM you have some very specific advantages.

Because: Security chips that are physically decoupled from the rest of the computer, such as TPM, can make the operation of a system much more secure. For example, Android and Apple iOS smartphones have such chips to secure contactless payments, for example. If only implemented in software, payment applications such as Apple and Google Pay would probably have been cracked long ago or would not even be certified for payments in shops. MacBooks and iMacs also have such a security chip, called the T2. Chromebooks from Google have a security chip called Titan C. In other words, all other mobile or desktop operating systems except Windows (and Linux) have long been using security chips – which cannot even be deactivated there. Oh, and by the way, under Linux there is also more and more software that can be made more secure with the TPM module.

So what’s the big problem with Windows and TPM? We are a little to blame for the bad image itself: Many years ago there were many critical articles in the c’t about the so-called Trusted Computing Platform Alliance (TCPA), which wanted to use TPM chips to monitor which software was being executed by PCs will. Real horror scenarios were conjured up, for example that Microsoft could introduce a black list of prohibited programs, for example with competing browsers. Or that Microsoft could use its power to stop the use of Linux or other open source software. That would all have been really terrible – but it did not happen that way and we are still a long way from that today.

However, it is conceivable that software such as Adobe Creative Suite will in future use TPM to check whether it is running on a computer with a valid license. But that has nothing to do with TPM at first, but with DRM, i.e. digital rights management.

And of course DRM is always crap from the customer’s point of view. DRM ensures that you do not get a picture when you connect a laptop to a projector (keyword HDCP), that you cannot use refilled ink cartridges or that a game does not start even though you have bought it legally. But fortunately there are alternatives: You can buy your games from GOG, for example, they generally don’t do DRM.

And if you don’t trust Microsoft, Google or Apple in general, you simply use an open source operating system like Linux – if in doubt you can look at the source code and know that there is no government backdoor in it. Ultimately, that’s what it’s all about: trust. And at least I have to say that I no longer really trust a Windows operating system without additional security measures such as TPM, Secure Boot and Virtualization Based Security – there have been too many malware attacks and zero-day exploits for that recently. Having a solid, tamper-evident trust anchor is just important these days.

So: if the security measures protect me from this, the advantages outweigh the advantages for me. However, if the security measures start to work against me – i.e. annoy me with DRM junk, then I will switch to an operating system that is more DRM-free, such as Linux. And then make a video about it – I could do that anyway. Bye!

c’t 3003 is the c’t YouTube channel. The videos on c’t 3003 are independent content and independent of the articles in c’t magazin. Editor Jan-Keno Janssen and video producers Johannes Börnsen and Şahin Erengil publish a video every week.

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