Intel Takes Wraps Off Processor With Hard-wired Security

Intel's PXA27x processors, announced Monday at a conference in Taiwan, contain a security "engine" that's on the same piece of silicon but separated from the area where general processing takes place. The engine also has access to secure memory.

Today, security tasks such as handling the keys that unscramble data are typically processed like any other task. As a result, it's possible that an errant program can alter, intercept or damage jobs that are supposed to be secure.

With Intel's new chips, cell phone makers and carriers can guarantee a greater, hardware-based level of security for customers who use the devices to access corporate networks or need to lock down information.

Carriers, for instance, can secure the software that boots up a phone, making it next to impossible for hackers to tweak the device and cause trouble.

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"Carriers want to be able to identify the handset on the network. They want to make sure nobody is doing anything malicious with that handset," said Dave Rogers, Intel's wireless marketing manager.

The same technology also can be used to ensure that content such as music or movies is used in a way dictated by the copyright holder. A purchased song, for instance, would not play unless it's sure that it's authorized and running on secure hardware.

Intel and other supporters of trusted computing believe the extra layer of security will spur content providers to make more songs and movies available on the Internet.

But critics complain that such technologies will be used by content owners to lock down software, music, movies and any other media with draconian digital rights management schemes. As a result, people will lose control of what's on their computers, cell phones and handhelds.

Similar efforts are underway for desktops and other computers. Intel is working on a technology it has code-named LaGrande in its Pentium 4 processors. Microsoft Corp. also is working on what it calls the 'Next Generation Secure Computing Base.'

'We're taking some of the learnings from LaGrande technology,' said Rogers, who declined to elaborate further on the similarities and differences between LaGrande and the PXA270x family.

With its cell phone and handheld chips, Intel is working with all the major operating system vendors - including Microsoft, Symbian and PalmSource - to ensure their software can work with the new security technology. Rogers declined to name manufacturers who will sell phones with the new chips.

Some observers question whether Intel will make inroads into the markets with the chips, which also are designed to consume little power yet be robust enough to handle video and other multimedia.

The world's leading supplier of processors for personal computers has not seen much success in the cell phone market. Its mobile business was reorganized in December after its failure to meet expectations resulted in a $600 million impairment charge.

"They're at an early place in this marketplace," said Michael King, an analyst at Gartner. "Being able to dictate standards requires that you have a commanding position and I don't think they're there yet."

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