Government wary of 'trusted computing'
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Democratic rights and obligations could be imperilled when Trusted Computing technologies and digital rights management arrive on new systems, says the manager of the State Service Commission’s e-government strategy and policy team, Hugh McPhail.
Government can make sure its own documents and computers do not have such protection imposed on them, he says. There is a set of principles and policies that have been established that bar such encumbering protections from both content and computers, unless there is good reason for them.
Government agencies are avoiding any of the new TC and DRM software by, for example, not turning on Microsoft’s Information Rights Management (IRM) systems.
The fear is that by allowing protections that are enforced by an outside party (such as a computer or software vendor) to act on documents that are in government agencies’ possession, agencies could lose a measure of control over these documents. They could find, for example, that they can’t copy, store, retrieve or print documents as they wish — or as government policy and practice requires.
Some DRM protection schemes are also known to “phone home” — that is, they send a digital signal over the internet to the vendor of the DRM software which may indicate details of the document and the way it is being used. This could compromise the privacy of the agency concerned, the individual and the organisation to which the document refers.
The SSC is now working with other government agencies on a set of standards and guidelines to help agencies develop practical processes “appropriate to their business drivers and statutory responsibilities” against the framework of their principles and policies.
But it is not only government-sourced documents that are affected. Statutory returns and other documents that businesses and individuals file with government agencies may well be prepared on outside computers equipped with TC or DRM software. This may also create problems, said McPhail, speaking at last week’s Govis (Government Information Services) conference.
One of the government principles says: “Any information that is relied on for execution of public business must be free from encumbrance by externally imposed digital restrictions, except with the informed consent of government.”
This means either that specific exemptions must be drafted in respect of certain documents — and content from those documents only be included in internal documents under strict controls — or that such external documents must be rejected. This could be a handicap to the routine filing of documents with government agencies, said McPhail.
Parliament is taking its first steps into the world of electronic document handling in its Select Committee hearings on such matters (Computerworld, February 5). Refusal to accept documents that may be DRM-encumbered could force submitters to file their documents in printed form for re-keying on unencumbered parliamentary computers — exactly what e-filing is trying to avoid.
However, such protections could be used positively, too — to enhance security around government agencies and in public and government communications, for example.