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New Microsoft Security Chip Will Go Inside Intel, AMD CPUs

‘Rather than asking customers to bolt on security processors as you would with a [Trusted Platform Module], we‘re building right into the DNA of the processor a security co-processor that’s going to store all of your encryption keys,’ Microsoft’s David Weston says of the new Pluton security chip, which will also go inside future Qualcomm CPUs.

Microsoft said it has designed a new kind of security processor with Intel, AMD and Qualcomm that will go into future client CPUs made by the chipmakers.

The Bellevue, Wash.-based company revealed the new Pluton security processor Tuesday, saying it will provide an unprecedented level of security to future Windows PCs by moving silicon root of trust from an external hardware component, the Trusted Platform Module, onto the die of the CPU itself.

[Related: How Intel’s Tiger Lake CPUs Are Designed For A ‘Spectrum Of Needs’]

AMD, Intel and Qualcomm said Pluton will be included in future CPUs for PCs. An Intel spokesperson said these processors will come out in the next few years. More specifics were not available.

David Weston, partner director of enterprise and OS Security at Microsoft, said Pluton represents Microsoft’s continuing effort to “verticalize” security that began with its Secured-core PC feature for Windows, which was introduced last year as a way to protect against firmware attacks.

“Rather than asking customers to bolt on security processors as you would with a TPM, we‘re building right into the DNA of the processor a security co-processor that’s going to store all of your encryption keys. It’s going to provide your device’s identity to the cloud. It’s what’s going to release your log-in keys underneath the hood when you use your face or fingerprint or type in your pin,” he said. “It’s essentially the most important brain of security when it comes to the platform.”

Pluton will work with Windows features like Windows Hello, BitLocker and System Guard that have relied on the Trusted Platform Module chip. And because Pluton emulates the Trusted Platform Module, Weston said, it will support any software using Trusted Platform Module APIs.

“Anybody who is using TPM APIs on a Pluton-enabled system, it would just work,” he said.

Weston said Microsoft plans to add more capabilities to Pluton that aren’t standard to the Trusted Platform Module, but the company wants to ensure it gets things right first.

The issue with the Trusted Platform Module, according to Weston, is that hackers can intercept data that goes between the chip and the CPU along the bus that connects the two components.

“Every time we‘re communicating with the TPM, we are sending a request and receiving back data or vice versa that can be glitched or sniffed or any of those things,” he said.

By moving that functionality to the CPU, it will become much more difficult for hackers to intercept that information, Weston said.

“We‘re saying, ‘hey, unless you have the expertise to modify 7-nanometer transistors in between these two chips, which’ — it’s not outside the realm of possibility, but I think you would agree is orders of a magnitude harder than just sniffing a bus,” he said.

Beyond providing stronger security for Windows features and applications, Pluton will make it “deadly simply” to manage and download firmware updates, eliminating the need to chase down patches from different manufacturers when a new security issue emerges.

Microsoft first introduced Pluton in 2018 as the security subsystem for its Azure Sphere IoT security solution that consists of a Linux-based security system, a microcontroller unit chip that comes with silicon hardware root of trust and a cloud-based security service.

But the company’s work on a dedicated security processor started before that, with integrated hardware and operating system security capabilities introduced in Microsoft’s Xbox One game console in 2013 to prevent software piracy.

Jason LaPorte, CTO and CISO at Power Consulting Group, a New York-based Intel and Microsoft managed services partner, said he expects Pluton will drive more sales for managed services providers because security is becoming a more important differentiator than performance.

“This is one of those things that goes in the column of, ‘yes, you should upgrade, and here‘s the benefits you’ll get beyond the faster processor,” he said.

LaPorte said he expects Microsoft’s collaboration with a broader ecosystem of chipmakers and hardware vendors will become the norm.

“There hasn’t been enough coordination in the past,” he said. “And I think this type of coordination will be where the future of security is [going]. Software on the [operating system] securing the OS is not sufficient, because it’s all working on the same layer.”

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