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Security technology based on good vibes

Shaking atoms will generate random numbers for the encryption to be embedded in Intel's Pentium III. But be careful sending private email to your space-alien friends: The technology won't work in outer space.

Vibrating atoms are the key to an upcoming encryption strategy from Intel that will make it dramatically harder for hackers to crack confidential transactions and messages, the company said yesterday.

As announced this week, Intel will embed a random-number generator into the Pentium III processor that will be far superior to the software-based random-number generators currently in use because it depends upon the reaction of particles inside the processor at a particular point in time, said Pat Gelsinger, corporate vice president of the Desktop Products Group. This could lead to a wider acceptance of encryption, he said.

"Ultimately, this is about building a world of trusted connected computers."

The improvement comes from the nature of how random numbers are plucked by intruders. With software random-number generators, numerical patterns eventually emerge. If the numerical pattern is deciphered, a cryptographer can then determine the "random" number and crack the code. A random number is one of the crucial protections in a communication guarded by public-private key encryption. If someone determines the number, he or she can open the document.

Random numbers from hardware generators, by contrast, are almost purely random. With the Pentium III, for instance, the number will be determined by "thermal noise," or the rate at which different atoms in the processor's circuitry are vibrating at a random point in time, according to Michael Glancy, general manager of the Platform Security Division at Intel.

"Whenever you apply power to a circuit, you get vibration," he said, and the variations are virtually limitless. Heat fluctuates constantly inside a processor, changing the vibration rate. Different materials also vibrate a different rates and parts made from identical materials will still react differently to the same stimuli, producing different numbers.

The generator will determine the number by calculating the difference between the thermal noise given off by at least two sources on the processor, Glancy said.

The only time the generator will not work is if temperatures plummet to absolute zero, the nadir of temperature where no movement exists. "So it is inappropriate for intergalactic space travel," said Gelsinger.

The number generator itself will be located on the Pentium III chipset, the company said. It will become a usable feature in Pentium III PCs later in the year.