Intel adds encryption to vPro

Embedded security features, code-named Danbury, make application encryption easier, add new layer of hard drive protection

Intel is preparing to introduce a new set of security features in its next-generation vPro microprocessors that have been designed to extend the reach of encryption applications and make the systems easier to install and manage.

Built under the code-name Danbury, the embedded security features -- planned to be introduced in the second half of 2008 -- promise to improve the efficacy of commercial encryption tools via onboard integration hooks for the programs, and by adding a new layer of hard drive protection when vPro-powered computers are asleep or otherwise powered-down.

According to Intel officials, the addition of the Danbury technology will also make it far easier for organizations to put encryption applications into place by directly addressing the common headache of key management within the new embedded security tools.

Many companies that have already installed encryption software on their computers are still struggling with key management, and, even worse, most fail to realize that the applications do not protect hard drives unless the machines are fully powered-up -- creating an attractive vector for attackers and giving those organizations a false sense of security -- said Steve Grobman, director of business client architecture at Intel.

Even those computers carrying today's full-disk encryption tools remain vulnerable to attack when they are in hibernation and stand-by mode, he said.

That fact proves even more troublesome as so many companies are using encryption software as a means to safeguard sensitive data on their machines and meet compliance regulations, especially in the case of computers that have been stolen and had their authentication systems bypassed.

"Companies want to utilize full disk encryption to better protect their data, but commercial software products are hard to deploy and still leave many ways for machines to be attacked," Grobman said. "By putting certain aspects of encryption into the hardware, versus using only software-based systems, we believe we can make encryption easier to deploy and manage, while addressing those remaining vulnerabilities."

Rather than pitching the Danbury tools as an alternative to commercial encryption applications, the features will serve to augment software products made by companies including Credant, PGP, Pointsec, Safeboot and Utimaco, according to the Intel product engineering leader.

All of those firms have already partnered directly with the CPU manufacturer around the upcoming release to build hooks in the chips to integrate with their own encryption software systems and allow customers to take advantage of the Danbury capabilities, he said.

"By taking certain sensitive operations and putting them directly into the hardware, such as by moving the keys into the chipset, we are making these encryption systems easier and more practical to get up-and-running," Grobman said. "This isn't an effort to compete with encryption software makers but rather to help customers see better implementations of their tools; we believe that these new features should actually have a positive effect on the entire encryption space."

The addition of the Danbury tools represents only the latest in a string of security and management technologies embedded directly into the vPro lineup by Intel, including the company's Active Management Technology (AMT), which is aimed at making it easier for administrators to do remote updates on corporate machines, such as for installing anti-virus (AV) updates or operating system (OS) security patches.

Earlier this year, Intel also announced new features that extend malware behavior-detection further onto the CPU level and wall off virtualized software systems from attack, along with new tools meant to help desktops communicate directly with so-called network access control (NAC) systems, which are used for device configuration monitoring and network authentication.

In another nod to extended management capabilities, the Danbury features will also provide IT organizations with the option to gain remote access to encrypted machines to patch them -- without any interaction on the part of end users, Grobman said, and give administrators the ability to set parameters for implementation of encryption applications using Microsoft Active Directory.

Companies that have already installed encryption programs often find it a time-consuming process to help users who forget their computer passwords regain access to their machines, Intel executives claim.

And whereas administrators of encrypted machines are often forced to decrypt entire disk drives to perform tasks including operating system updates today, the new vPro features will eliminate complex software processes that make for such arduous work, they promised.

With a growing number of regulatory mandates requiring companies to encrypt the data stored on their computers, and large numbers of high-profile corporate data breaches splashed across the headlines, many companies have moved to deploy the systems and subsequently found them too unwieldy to employ on a broad basis, said Malcolm Harkins, general manager of Intel's Information Risk and Security Group.

The fact that today's encryption systems don't provide full-time disk protection, as many users think they do, has even led Intel itself to delay broad use of the technology, he said.

"We have not moved to deploy full disk encryption simply because we didn't feel it was worth it to spend millions of dollars to add technologies that wouldn't provide sufficient levels of defense," Harkins said. "I don't think that many companies that have already installed encryption software realize the shortcomings, and that by putting their faith in these tools they may actually be increasing their overall risk."

Harkins pointed out that companies using existing encryption tools may also run afoul of e-discovery regulations if users have data stored on machines that cannot be accessed centrally by administrators, such as in the case of a lost or forgotten password.

"When you start looking at the legal implications with these regulations, you realize that there are also some additional risks that these companies may not be aware of," he said. "People are adopting encryption as a solution to some of these problems, but they may be creating additional problems for themselves in the long-term."

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