TO thwart hackers and foster online commerce, the next generation of computers will almost certainly cede some control to software firms, Hollywood and other outsiders.
That could break a long-standing tenet of computing: that PC owners ultimately control data on their own machines.
Microsoft calls its technology 'Palladium'. Intel dubs it 'LaGrande'. An industry group that includes these companies, IBM, Hewlett-Packard and 170 others terms it 'trusted computing'.
Though the initiatives have technical differences, they share the goal of hardwiring security into silicon and related software — a leap beyond today's less-secure mechanisms, which are coded into programs to protect data.
"This is a fundamentally new approach as opposed to taking a software-only, Band-Aid approach," said Narendar Sahgal, a software planning manager at Intel.
The efforts would help protect movies and other digital content from piracy and even personal copying, and critics see few benefits for consumers.
"I don't think the kind of trustworthiness they seek to deliver is at all desirable," said Ross Anderson, a security researcher at Cambridge University. "It's not security for me. It's security for them."
The companies and content providers behind the initiative claim that by protecting data from external attacks and unlawful trading they'll be able to unlock the potential of computing itself.
The key is creating a realm in computing where each bit of communication — an email, an online purchase, a check of a database, the reading of a document — can be achieved only by interacting with secured, uniquely identified hardware through 'trusted agents'.
Each agent would enforce policies set by senders, recipients, copyright holders or a combination that would decide how the content can be used.
In this realm, Hollywood could safely release its works. The health care and financial industries could communicate with clients without fear of leaks. And ordinary users could rest assured that critical information won't be stolen or wrecked by the virus du jour or hackers.
"There are certain transactions and certain businesses where you need to understand and trust the device you're talking to," said Scott Dinsdale, executive vice president of digital strategy for the Motion Picture Association of America.
Developers of the new technology say they're just building trusted platforms, not setting any policies for using them.
All emphasize that specific tasks — such as managing digital rights — can be built on top of their technologies but are not part of the initiatives.
Peter Biddle, Microsoft's product manager for Palladium, said it would not empower copyright holders to reach into consumers' computers and make 'untrusted' documents — such as music files — disappear.
In fact, he said, users could use Palladium to protect content from scans and hacks by copyright holders, who have lately employed intrusive methods in a bid to curb piracy.
Computers with the new capabilities are not expected for several years, but critics say the details released so far do not bode well for open computing.
Trustworthiness would be achieved by giving users two choices: trusted and untrusted. On a computer running in untrusted mode, information would be shared just as it has been for the past 20 years. It's also still vulnerable to attack.
The trusted realm, however, would be immune from such attack. Data and memory would be contained in a virtual vault. Keys would be held by a chip that lets in only trusted software.
Content creators could write and enforce rules that determine whether a file could, for instance, be distributed or printed. They could prohibit untrusted machines from accessing a trusted document.
Palladium, LaGrande and others are being designed to enforce existing rules and ones devised in the future.
Scott Charney, Microsoft's chief security strategist, said users and providers will set the rules — just as they do today. The difference, he said, is that the new technologies will create a secure environment for enforcing those rules.
Critics fear, however, that it will be the end user who might end up being trusted the least in the brave new world of trusted computing.
Creators of trusted programs could resort to draconian tactics to ensure their policies are enforced, Mr Anderson said.
Programs found to be illegally copied could be rendered useless remotely. Sensitive email, which might be useful in investigations, could vanish. And ebooks could be subjected to virtual book burnings.
Industry pioneer David P Reed, formerly the chief scientist at Lotus Development, called the initiatives "booby traps".
"I'm personally angry and disgusted that ... companies that grew up because of the personal computer revolution, which empowered users, are now acting to harm the users," Mr Reed said.
Supporters, however, argue that the new architecture will create more opportunities than it limits, as more and more consumers and content providers try things they now avoid because of insecurity.
Mr Biddle said laws and regulations that now protect sensitive documents from shredding also should bar the destruction of email or other computer-generated material.
Moreover, users will continue to have control, because they can always choose not run the security features, Mr Charney and other trusted-computing supporters say.
But those who refuse risk limiting choices, just as people who refuse to buy the Windows operating system are closed out of a computing world dominated by Microsoft, Mr Anderson said.
Seth Schoen, staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said incompatibility is the biggest threat posted by the trusted-computing initiatives.
"I don't think anyone can absolutely compel you to do anything in particular," he said. "What they can do is create an incompatibility or refuse to deal with you unless you meet a particular condition."
Mr Charney promised that Microsoft will not misuse the technology.
"Listen to what we say and watch what we do. Actions speak louder than words," Mr Charney said. "And then if we're saying 'X' but doing 'Y,' not only will we lose trust but our brand is hurt and we lose market share."