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Microsoft: BitLocker key to safe disk disposal

Says businesses using Vista with its hard drive encryption technology will have easy, safe way to dispose hard disks.

Microsoft claims that businesses planning to use Vista together with its BitLocker hard-drive encryption technology will have an easy and safe way to dispose of their hard disks.

The software giant said on Tuesday that Vista will be so secure that businesses will no longer need to worry about data being compromised when hard disks are sent for disposal, in line with upcoming "green" legislation designed to reduce waste.

"With Vista and BitLocker, businesses will be able to throw hard disks away and be sure (they are) secure," Nick McGrath, head of platform strategy for Microsoft UK, said at Infosecurity 2006.

However, McGrath rejected suggestions that BitLocker would have backdoors in its encryption that will allow police forces to decrypt information stored on suspect systems.

"The technology itself is 100 percent secure--we will not be producing any backdoors," said McGrath. "There are no backdoors in BitLocker technology."

BitLocker encryption uses a Trusted Platform Module (TPM), a chip that sits on the motherboard and contains an encryption key. According to Microsoft Technical Security Advisor Steve Lamb, the key both encrypts and decrypts data on the hard disk using the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES), which is also used by the U.S. government.

Microsoft denied that the encryption technology would enable criminals to store data so securely that it would be out of reach of the police.

"You can always break an encryption algorithm if you throw enough horsepower at it," said Lamb. The security advisor admitted that businesses could be at risk from hackers breaking the encryption but said the amount of power needed to do that was usually only available to governments.

Choosing a disposal method for encrypted hard disks would be a policy-based decision, Lamb said.

"Using BitLocker dramatically reduces the risk to data. I don't want to teach anyone to suck eggs, but you've got to ask 'What's my appetite for risk?' and apply the appropriate constraints. Some enterprises may decide it's a low risk, while in a military environment they may decide to smash the TPM to pieces," Lamb told ZDNet UK.

A security expert at mail services company MessageLabs said that, in theory, criminals can encrypt data and communicate with a fair degree of assurance using Pretty Good Privacy encryption.

"You can do an awful lot with PGP. You can encrypt things in a way that governments would find difficult to decrypt," said Mark Sunner, MessageLabs' chief technical officer.

Criminals were unlikely to use hard disks to store information, but theoretically gangs could use the Internet to host encrypted information.

"It's an interesting argument--because the Internet 'bad-guy rings' can use these techniques to send information around," said Sunner.

"Another use for a botnet is for hosting information, and it's constantly moving, making it difficult to intercept. Abuse of technology takes on a completely different meaning," Sunner added.

Tom Espiner of ZDNet UK reported from London.