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Embedded Security Safeguards Laptops

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Secure From Within
Embedded technology promises to make laptops tough targets.


This spring's announcement that Intel will partner with BIOS vendor Phoenix Technologies to help implement its planned Anti-Theft Technology for Centrino-based laptops underscores the emerging role of hardware-based security, particularly in laptops and other mobile devices.

Although details have yet to be announced, the partnership would leverage Phoenix's FailSafe product, which embeds policy-based protection against loss or theft in the BIOS. The idea, as with all Phoenix security technologies, is to enable security at startup, before the OS can be compromised.

"Poor design of Windows leads to a lot of implementation flaws. We say when the first line of code in the BIOS executes, it sets up the secure environment for the agent," says Phoenix CTO Gaurav Banga. "We've raised the barrier against your laptop being hacked by a factor of a thousand. Security is not an afterthought but a forethought from the first election that moves on the system."

Depending on the implementation and policy, companies can use FailSafe technology to track, control and recover laptops. Data can be encrypted and, if necessary, remotely erased, or the laptop can be disabled. For example, if a laptop is lost or stolen, the system can

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refuse to pass the hard drive password to the drive, rendering it useless even if it is removed from the laptop.

As a hardware-based tool, FailSafe can make use of inherent laptop capabilities to help determine a laptop's status and, based on information gathered, take action based on policy. The decision can be driven, for example, on the combination of a period of inactivity without network connectivity. It can also draw conclusions about unfamiliar network connections, location and movement, based on the device's accelerometer. Again, depending on policy, the BIOS may refuse to resume running the machine, or start or install the OS, block file transfers over USB ports, etc.

The threshold for action is based on policy. High-security environments, might have near-zero tolerance and authorize action based on minimal evidence at the risk of false positives. Less sensitive environments would require a preponderance of evidence before neutering a device.

Rather than necessarily compete with or replace other products, Phoenix offers its technologies to complement them through a series of OEM/ODM deals and partnerships. Among these are a deal with encryption software vendor Utimaco, in which Phoenix will integrate the Utimaco SafeGuard product's data protection and take advantage of Utimaco's management capabilities.

(Utimaco was also one of the other initial partners announced for Intel's Anti-Theft Technology, which is expected to be released in the fourth quarter. The others were McAfee, which acquired encryption vendor SafeBoot last year, as well as Fujitsu Siemens Computers and Lenovo Group.)

Other interesting FailSafe partnerships include Hitachi, which will use the technology to protect laptops equipped with its hard drives, and Alcatel-Lucent, for its innovative OmniAccess 3500 Nonstop Laptop Guardian, a CDMA or HSDPA 3G card that remotely secures and manages mobile computers.

This was first published in June 2008

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