Better PC Security Years Away

Emerging technologies could lead to a quantum leap in PC security, but the realization of that advance is still years away, industry experts say.

“The next quantum leap in security won’t occur until there is better operating system and better hardware support for it,” John Bedrick, a director of eTrust Security Management at Computer Associates, told TechNewsWorld.

Those improvements are already in the pipeline. For example, a technology called the Trusted Platform Module (TPM) creates a hardware secure zone inside a PC where security programs can do their work without fear of tampering.

Hardware, Software Improvements

Security support will be incorporated into future processors from both Intel, through its LaGrande technology, and AMD, through its Pacifica and Presidio offerings.

Also, Microsoft’s next version of Windows, code named Longhorn, and its Next-Generation Secure Computing Base (NGSCB) initiative will bolster PC security on the software side.

Chad Taggard, technology director of marketing for Intel in Santa Clara, Calif., explained that there are advantages to building security features into the hardware components of a personal computer, where, by some estimates, 60 percent of all business-critical information resides.

Reduce Risk

“It can reduce the risk of software-based attack,” he told TechNewsWorld. “What we’re doing with this hardware and the Trusted Platform Module is taking best known security methods and putting them where people can’t tamper with them.”

Hardware can also enable software to address common vulnerabilities such as the so-called “warm boot hole.” That hole allows hackers to pinch data that remains in memory after a computer is restarted without turning off the power.

To address that vulnerability, “We’ve added the capability for the operating system on an initiation to clear all the memory so when you reboot, those contents are no longer there,” Steve McDowell, division marketing manager for AMD Global Communications in Austin, Texas, told TechNewsWorld.

Desktops Acting Like Mainframes

In the future, he added, there also will be support for secure input and output paths built into chips, which will foil malware like keyboard loggers.

According to John Pescatore, research director for Internet security for the Gartner Group in Stamford, Conn., future secure desktops will act more like mainframes than PCs.

“You would still have this area on your PC with its own separate disk storage and software that you could screw up and get viruses that would chew everything up, but there would also be this safe, trusted execution environment where I could do really secure things,” he told TechNewsWorld.

“That isn’t easy to do,” he continued. “It means the operating system has to support that segmentation without holes. It means the hardware has to support that separation. What it basically means is that we’re trying to build a mainfame on the desktop.”

Long Road to Security

A key component of the new PC with strong security will be Longhorn, Pescatore asserted, which is expected to be released at the end of next year. Even then, he noted, it will take several “service packs” before the security improvements will be fully realized. Then it will take another two or three years to adopt all the new software and hardware technology.

“Realistically,” Pescatore said, “the PC will not to be a trustable platform without requiring a lot of add-on security products until 2009 at the earliest, with 2010 more likely.”

While new security improvements in PCs will make them less assailable, it won’t make them impregnable, cautions eTrust’s Bedrick.

No Panacea

“These aren’t going to be a panacea for everything,” he said. “They were never designed to be a panacea. They were designed to be improvements over what currently exists.”

“Nobody in the industry,” he continued, “would ever give a 100 percent guarantee in security. But what we all try to do is improve what we have and try to get ahead of the curve as much as possible. “

The guys with the white hats can make things more difficult for the guys in the black hats, but sooner or later, holes will be found, he observed. “There’s a lot of bright people at our technology companies,” he said, “but there are a lot of bright people out there on the dark side, too.”

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