Thought for the day: The Office secrets act

Microsoft's digital rights management service for Windows Server 2003 may seem like the answer to a government minister's prayer,...

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Microsoft's digital rights management service for Windows Server 2003 may seem like the answer to a government minister's prayer, but for the rest of us the implications are not so good, says Simon Moores.


I could almost imagine them tabling a vote of thanks at this week’s Cabinet meeting at No 10. There isn’t much in the way of good news around for ministers this month, but at least the preoccupation with Iraq has interrupted the regular leaking of memos which led to the resignations of Steven Byers and Estelle Morris.

This week’s hero isn’t Michael Portillo, it’s Microsoft, and no, the company hasn’t decided to give its software away to government for free. It’s even better than that if you happen to be a senior civil servant or a minister, because Microsoft has announced a new digital rights management service for Windows Server 2003 (WS2003).

Why, you ask, is this a reason for Sir Humphrey Appleby to celebrate? Because WS2003, in conjunction with a "lock box" - a policy appliance that is kept locked away - places "persistent protection" into any office document and rights management technology. According to Microsoft, this "enables businesses to protect the information they most worry might leak".

Just before Christmas, there was an embarrassing leak of a Foreign & Commonwealth Office document to US-based website A Sunday newspaper, which makes a point of watching Cryptome for salacious gossip, picked up a confidential memo that described the visit of Russia’s defense minister, Sergei Ivanov, to London and what was discussed between our two governments over dinner.

Of course, there was the normal polite chat about the price of vodka and weapons of mass destruction, but there was more interesting detail that I’m not at liberty to divulge. However, Microsoft’s new digital Rights Management Server (RMS), which sits behind its Office products, could very soon make it virtually impossible for a document to leak, short of taking a photograph of the screen.

Documents can really become "eyes only", depending on the policy hidden in the lock box and controlled by the RMS Server. Documents can even expire after a given time period, so short of a discovery demand under the Freedom of Information Act or other legislation, embarrassing or sensitive information will, in future, have a sell-by date. This measure could prove ideal for the Inland Revenue, which appears to be losing its laptops faster than it can buy them.

Focusing on the technical detail, Microsoft points out that the "Windows Rights Management Services can be used to control forwarding, copying and printing, as well as establishing time-based expiration rules. In addition, enterprises can enforce policy broadly and reliably by centrally delivering templates that automate the process - for example, making the policy around what constitutes "company confidential" uniform and easy to manage.

So there you have it, the end of leaking as we know it, and with it a mix of both good and bad news for the rest of us. The good news is of course that "confidential" will mean just that, and the bad news? Leaking is a necessary part of our political process, as there’s always a danger of being found out; remember Matrix Churchill and Stephen Byers?

Further down the line, DRM will lead to a world where free and fair use of information, such as photocopying, disappears altogether and is replaced either by blanket confidentiality or the arrival of a universal micropayment system, controlled by a mechanism that looks vaguely like Passport.

I’m in two minds about digital rights management. On the one hand, the arrival of the internet threw confidentiality out of the window, but on the other hand, DRM is leading us in a direction where information has a value - tightly controlled, directed and no longer free. In other words, in direct contradiction to the open principle of the internet. So while Microsoft’s introduction of DRM to Office was inevitable and, even, sensible, I wonder where it will lead us next?

What do you think?

Is digital rights management at odds with the intrinsically open nature of the web? Tell us in an e-mail >> reserves the right to edit and publish answers on the Web site. Please state if your answer is not for publication.

Zentelligence Setting the world to rights with the collected thoughts and opinions of the futurist writer, broadcaster and Computer Weekly columnist Simon Moores.

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