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Microsoft: A separate look for security

Pages with private data will look different than regular, unsecured pages, reminding users that they're looking at confidential material--and preventing "spoof attacks," Microsoft says.

NEW ORLEANS--Microsoft is trying to make security obvious.

The software giant plans to visually alter document or application windows that contain private information that's secured through Microsoft's Next-Generation Secure Computing Base (NGSCB), formerly known as Palladium. Secure windows will look different than regular, unsecured windows in order to remind users that they are looking at confidential material, Peter Biddle, product unit manager for Microsoft, said Thursday at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) here.

"We know that users need to be able to tell the difference between a trusted window and a regular one," Biddle said. "The window (will be) noticeably different."

People will likely customize the secure pages, which will help prevent "spoof attacks," where hackers plant a fraudulent Web page on a PC screen that looks, but isn't, a file from a person's doctor or accountant, for example.

The border of a secured page may contain information--such as the names of all the dogs that someone has ever owned--to make the data instantly recognizable as sound to the individual owner, as well as difficult to replicate. A hacker can create a spoof page with dogs' names running along the border but, in all likelihood, not one reading "Buffy, Skip and Jack Daniels--and in that order," Biddle said.

NGSCB essentially creates a secure data vault and a secured way to transmit data between memory, the hard drive, the monitor and trusted third parties. Computer users will likely secure intellectual property files or bank records with it, but not the bulk of their data on their PC, according to Microsoft.

Information on secured windows will vanish if another window is placed on top of it or shifted to the background. Erasing the information will prevent certain types of attacks and remind people that they're dealing with confidential material, Biddle said.

When the secure window returns to the top of the stack, the information will reappear, he said.

Microsoft is still working on how to implement this technology and what it will ultimately look like.

Separately, David Kirk, an executive with graphics chipmaker Nvidia, said his company will be able to release graphics chips that conform to the NGSCB specifications the day that Longhorn, the next big version of Windows, comes out. NGSCB will not be integrated into Longhorn, which is due in 2005, but will instead come out as separate software, Biddle said. Over time, pieces of the technology will be integrated into the coming operating system.

Graphics cards are a security problem, because they contain their own pool of memory.

John Crank, senior branding associate at Advanced Micro Devices, said the chipmaker is also looking to adapt its products to the security technology.

Earlier in the week at WinHEC, Microsoft showed off a prototype of NGSCB that's based on real and emulated hardware. Small applications running on the technology demonstrated its security features.