Windows Vista’s Full Volume Encryption & TPM, part 2: FVE on Tablet PC?

OK, so where was I when I last left the TPM topic? Oh yeah

Frankly I don’t know what to think about the state of TPM-backed data encryption. I really *want* to be able to say “yeah baby – your best bet for securing data on a laptop will be Vista’s FVE” (or any other OS-level TPM-backed file encryption option). For a few hours, I actually believed it could be true – not just for an individual, but for any really big organization as well.

However, the past couple of months’ effort has me pretty much convinced otherwise. I’m not exactly optimistic for the prospect of widespread TPM-secured data protection in the near future.

It looks to me like Full Volume Encryption (FVE) in Windows Vista won’t be a viable option for anyone who isn’t prepared to drop a bundle on new computing hardware at the same time. That’s because there’s almost no computers – especially mobile computers – on the market that have a v1.2 TPM.

While I realize that there are other IHV- and ISV-supplied TSS packages to support TPM-backed file encryption, I am mostly focused on Vista FVE for a couple of reasons:

  1. Until a service is provide in-the-box with the OS, my experience with customers is that integrating vendor-specific security software is a huge hassle, and not supportable at scale over shorter periods of time (e.g. 2-3 years).
  2. There’ll often be more than one TPM-enabled package to support – generally, it looks like an organization will have multiple packages, one for every desktop/notebook/tablet/server vendor that integrates a different TPM module.
  3. It’s not clear at this time how the TSS packages are licensed, but I’ll take a SWAG and assume that you’re only licensed to use the TSS package on the system with which it was shipped, and that you’ll have to pay extra to use that package on PCs that were shipped with a different TSS package.
  4. An organization could scrap the bundled software packages entirely and just license a third-party product across the board (e.g. Wave), but the choices are pretty limited from what I’ve seen, and personally (without having had any hands-on experience to support my gut feeling) I don’t know how much confidence I’d have locking my organization’s most prized data up under this – e.g. what’s the enterprise management (archival & recovery, configuration management, identity management) story like?
  5. [Disclosure: I’m a former Microsoft employee, security consultant and spent most of my tenure consulting on EFS, RMS and other security technologies.]

I’ve been in the market for a new laptop for a while, and one of the reasons for my recent obsession with TPM is that (a) any purchase I make now will have to last well beyond the release data of Vista, (b) since I intend to continue to leverage my Windows security expertise, I should really get a computer that supports FVE so I get first-hand knowledge of how it works, and (c) you generally can’t add a TPM chip to a computer after you’ve purchased it (with at least one known exception).

Oh, and I’ve committed myself to the Tablet PC variant, since I am a committed “whiteboard zealot” and I expect to use the freehand drawing capability quite a bit.

So my mission is to find a Tablet PC that meets my “requirements”:

  • TPM v1.2 chip
  • max RAM > 1 GB
  • dedicated video RAM > 32 MB (to support the lunatic Vista graphical improvements)
  • can run from battery for at least three hours a day (e.g. bus rides to and from work, meetings away from my desk)
  • won’t break my wrist if I use it standing up (e.g. weight under 5 lbs)
  • will withstand dropping it once in a while – I’m more than a bit clumsy

I have spent countless hours scouring the Internet for TPM-enabled Tablets. After my intial survey of the PC vendors’ offerings, I figured there’d be at least a couple of options from which to choose. However, the longer I looked, the more bleak it became. Of the major vendors of Tablet PCs (Acer, Fujitsu, Gateway, HP, Lenovo, Motion and Toshiba), I have so far found exactly ONE Tablet on the market with a v1.2 TPM chip.


And not exactly the industry standard for large enterprise deployment – Gateway!

Did I mention that Windows Vista will require the v1.2 chip to support Secure Startup and Full Volume Encryption?

Oh, and did you hear that Microsoft is trying like h*** to get Tablet PCs in the hands of as many users as possible?

Geez Louise, I even went so far as to contact Fujitsu (who have a really fantastic Tablet with a v1.1 TPM chip) to see if they were sitting on any about-to-be-released v1.2-enabled Tablets, asking them the following:

Could you give me some idea of the following:
– whether Fujitsu is committed to integrating v1.2 TPM chips in their computing products?
– when we can expect to see Tablet PCs with v1.2 TPM chips integrated into them?
– Any planned model or series of Tablets that the v1.2 TPM chips will be used in e.g. Lifebook 4000 series, Slate vs. Convertible, etc.?

And this is the response I got:

We fully intend to continue our support of TPM and transition to v1.2.

However, at this time we can not provide a date as to when this will be available. Fujitsu company policy and NDA agreements with suppliers do not allow us to publicly disclose future plans prior to product launch.

So what’s a guy to think? Right now we’ve got exactly one FVE-ready Tablet on the market, and according to this guy, the big wave of computer upgrades in the business sector may already be passing by. [Let me ignore the fact that I haven’t looked into notebooks yet, and assume that TPM v1.2-equipped notebooks are just as scarce. I’ll check into this further and report back.]

Between now and the shipment of Vista (perhaps October 2006, if you can believe these rumours), less than a year away, am I to believe that hordes of TPM v1.2-equipped PCs will show up on people’s desks? If so, then perhaps there might be a minority of organizations who would consider testing the Vista FVE technology (though I doubt they’d be ready to standardize on it, assuming – rightly – that they’ll have less than a majority of Vista FVE-ready PCs in their organization).

But even if TPM v1.2-equipped PCs were to quickly dominate these organizations, would I feel comfortable urging such organizations to adopt Vista to enable use of FVE to protect their data? I honestly don’t know – I don’t feel a resounding “YES” coming on, but neither do I feel a “NO” building in my gut. Perhaps it’s because I feel like this question won’t be practical for a number of years yet.

By requiring the v1.2 TPM chip for FVE & Secure Startup, I believe that:

  • Third-party TSS packages will get a lot of leeway to take the “organizational standard” position – especially for those TSS packages that also support v1.2 TPM chips
  • Most mid-sized to large organizations won’t be in a position to adopt FVE & SS as their data protection standard until say 2008 or later.

This leaves me wondering what data will be left to protect by then? Given the fact that most organizations are being forced through one regulation or another to encrypt customer-sensitive data, I believe that the next couple of years will be the final window for unencrypted user data to reside on client PCs.

Put another way: if you’re the InfoSec officer in charge of recommended strategies for regulatory compliance & avoiding liability, wouldn’t you rather just encrypt every disk on every “physically insecure” PC throughout the organization? That’s one sure-fire way to know that users haven’t accidentally stored a sensitive file in an unencrypted volume, folder or file. Only then would the organization be able to claim that a lost or stolen PC did not contain unencrypted customer data.

[Now, sure, in 3-5 years there’ll be room to re-evaluate the technology used to maintain protected data on hard drives, and it’s quite possible that by then Vista’s SS & FVE will get the nod from many organizations. Migrating from one highly-technical solution to another is never easy in large orgs, and is pretty scary for small outfits or self-supporting end users, but I’m leaving the door open for the landscape to change beyond my wildest imaginings in the 3-5 year timeframe…]

Does anyone see things differently? Does Vista FVE look like it’ll capture a significant portion of the “data protection” market? I’d really like to be wrong about this – it would suck if the best “free” on-disk data protection technology to come out of Microsoft won’t be practical for the majority until long after they had to commit to another on-disk encryption solution.

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