WASHINGTON -- Despite a concerted effort on the part of the One Laptop per Child project to improve the overall security of its devices, researchers contend that the effort to distribute new teaching resources to the world's young and poor could create significant problems.
Addressing the assembled crowd during the final presentation of this year's ShmooCon show on March 25, a panel of experts ranging from the laptop program's chief security architect to well-known white hat industry pundits debated the potential impact of the project, which hopes to distribute as many as 10 million of its sub-$100 devices in the next year.
Since the OLPC project's inception in 2005, security experts have openly questioned how the group would ensure that its diminutive, neon-colored laptops wouldn't be used to wreak havoc, or be overrun by malware attacks, after they land in children's hands.
Many of the recipients will be in developing regions of the world where the devices may be stolen from youngsters and where end users will have little concept of the dangers that exist in the computing world, critics said.
Ivan Krstić, director of security architecture for OLPC, which has its base of operations in Cambridge, Mass., told ShmooCon attendees that the project's newly-upgraded laptop prototype has added many innovations that will help keep the computers operating safely.
OLPC has long maintained that strong ties between the program and the United Nations, along with the devices' colorful appearance, will protect them from being swiped from the children, aged 5 to 15, who carry them in hazardous social climes.
When the latest model of the device -- dubbed the XO-1 and made by Quanta -- was introduced in Feb. 2007, it carried a new security architecture along with its hardware upgrades that will make the machines in some ways more secure than some traditional desktop PCs, Krstić said.
Labeled as Bitfrost, the security architecture offers everything from embedded technology to allow more powerful encryption, to so-called "theft leases" that allow the laptops to be shut down remotely if stolen. In the case that a malware program makes an unwanted change to the XO-1's Linux-based operating system, an original version of the OS remains available on the device so that it can be quickly restored.
But perhaps the most important security feature built into the devices is also one of its most controversial, Krstić admitted.
Traditional security philosophy would likely dictate placing strict controls over what applications could be run on the machines, but the OLPC believes that its design can block attacks and foster learning through an approach that's more open yet promises unique protection.
Users can download whatever programs they like on the laptops, but the computers won't accept unapproved applications that execute virus-like behavior. The system also seeks to prevent attacks that violate any of the device's underlying protections, such as banning any Web-based software that attempts to view footage on the machines' onboard cameras.
At the core of Bitfrost is an applications-handling technology that runs each program in a semi-virtual environment to help prevent unwanted software interaction.