Hardware security sneaks into PCs

Millions of computers will be shipped this year with encryption hardware plugged in--even though Microsoft isn't ready for it. Photo: Lock boxes

Millions of workers will get the latest in PC security this year--but they won't get the full benefit.

The three largest computer makers--Dell, Hewlett-Packard and IBM--have started selling desktops and notebooks with so-called trusted computing hardware, which allows security-sensitive applications to lock down data to a specific PC.

But Microsoft's plans to take advantage of the technology have been delayed, meaning the software heavyweight likely won't get behind it until the release of Longhorn, the Windows update scheduled for next year.


What's new:
The top three PC makers have started selling models with encryption hardware, even though Microsoft's software for the technology has hit delays.

Bottom line:
That leaves hardware makers in a rare position: They are leading Microsoft, rather than working to support one of the software giant's initiatives.

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That leaves hardware makers in a rare position: They are leading Microsoft, rather than working to support one of the software giant's initiatives.

"Our success is not dependent on Microsoft," said Brian Berger, executive vice president at security company Wave Systems and the marketing chair for the Trusted Computing Group. "When Microsoft comes on board with some of what they have talked about, it will be that much better, but this is not a Microsoft-centric activity."

The Trusted Computing Group, the industry consortium that sets specifications for the specialized hardware, has had to rely on other software makers to demonstrate the benefits of running a trusted PC.

Largely a footnote in 2004, the technology is set to take off this year, with the top three PC makers shipping laptops and desktops equipped with hardware security. Dell, the last holdout, announced that it had added the security technology to its latest line of notebooks on Feb. 1. In 2005, more than 20 million computers will ship with the trusted platform module, up from 8 million in 2004, according to estimates from research firm IDC.

The technology locks specialized encryption keys in a data vault--essentially a chip on the computer's motherboard. Computers with the feature can wall off data, secure communications and identify systems belonging to the company or to business partners. That means companies can improve the security of access to corporate data, even when the PC is not connected to a network.

Microsoft is a significant proponent of trusted computing. When it first publicized plans in 2002 to create a security technology known as Palladium, it said that its software component might be released as early as the end of 2004.

At the time, digital-rights advocates raised concerns that the technology could be used by software makers and media companies to control people's PCs, putting Microsoft on the defensive. The dispute even led the

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