Google's Project Vault is a security system disguised as a microSD card

The search giant's new project aims to make phones more secure by loading a microSD card that serves as a security powerhouse.

Google's newest project tries to make smartphones more secure. James Martin/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO -- Google wants to make your phone more secure, without having to change the way manufacturers make smartphones.

The company on Friday announced Project Vault, which packs a digital security system into a microSD card, which phones and computers usually recognize as a storage device. The company unveiled the service during Google's I/O developer conference here.

"Project Vault is your digital mobile safe," said Regina Dugan, who leads Google's Advanced Technology and Projects group, or ATAP, which oversees the project. "Big security, small package."

The Vault card is essentially a secure computer that protects the personal information of a phone's owner. For example, it can encrypt, or scramble, chat messages from an app and provide extra levels of authentication, so your device knows that you are you. The card itself has a near-field communication, or NFC, chip for communicating with nearby devices and has 4 gigabytes of storage. It can be recognized by any OS -- including Google's Android software, Windows, and Apple's OS X -- but all the software is being run off the microSD card.

Google will first develop the technology for enterprise companies. The idea is that if it meets the high bar of big companies, it will meet the standards of consumers as well.

Both Web and mobile security are becoming increasingly vulnerable at a time when more and more consumers' financial and other sensitive data is being stored in smartphone apps and online services. Hackers have conducted high-profile attacks on retailers like Target and have pilfered databases in the health care and financial industries, gleaning medical records, Social Security numbers and credit and bank info. And thanks to the leaks from whistleblower Edward Snowden, we now know the extent to which communications and online activity are activity monitored and stored by way of government surveillance.

The development of secure ways to communicate and store data is a priority for Google as more users flock to its free services like the Gmail email service, Chrome Web browser and Google Maps, all of which share data with Google to better inform its advertising products.

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