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Via chips away at security issues

The chipmaker plans to ship a new C3 processor that includes a random number generator, a tool used in file encryption.

Via Technologies is promising to put a padlock on PC data.

The chipmaker, best known in the United States for its Apollo chipsets, will announce on Tuesday a new C3 processor that includes a data security feature, dubbed Padlock. According to Via, the C3 will ship by month's end.

The 1GHz processor incorporates a random number generator, a tool used in file encryption. Software makers can use a programming tool from Via to write applications that, in turn, use the generator to encrypt their files.

The need for better data security has been highlighted lately by the rise of identity theft and developments such as a recent MIT study showing the ease with which old hard drives can yield sensitive information.

Chipmakers, including Intel and Transmeta, have responded by building stronger security into their products, thus allowing PC makers to offer computers with greater security but without increasing the prices.

"What this enables is faster and more heavy-duty encryption," said Richard Brown, associate vice president of Taiwan-based Via.

"It's been fully third-party evaluated and validated," he added. "We're starting to work with the software community to include support for the extension in their programs."

Intel and Transmeta have also announced plans to build more security into new products due out later this year. Intel has been offering features such as random number generators in its chipsets for some time. But the company plans to step up security with a new technology it calls LaGrande. LaGrande, which will be part of new Pentium 4 chipsets sold later in the year, will protect hard drives and encrypt data sent between PCs. However, it will not encrypt data on the drive itself.

Transmeta plans to add a similar security scheme directly into its Crusoe processors in the second half of the year.

Microsoft has also announced plans to beef up security in its Windows operating system by way of a project called Palladium. Meanwhile, IBM has developed its own security chip, which allows for encryption and other security features. The company includes the chip in most of its notebooks and desktops.

Via sees the application of its security technology in a number of areas, ranging from PCs to game consoles and other consumer-electronics devices used for entertainment.

Via's new C3 chip will offer performance that's about 20 percent better than its predecessors' on business applications such as word processing. The chip offers 50 percent better performance on multimedia applications, Brown said.

Prices for the new C3 will start at about $35, he said. That's roughly the same as its predecessors and well below the price of chips like Intel's Celeron, which start at $54.

Via, which entered the PC chip fray in 1999 with the purchase of National Semiconductor's Cyrix division and then IDT's Centaur chip business, has had only a small presence in the United States.

But with the support of companies such as Wal-Mart and Microtel, which sells desktops that start as low as $200, the chipmaker has been increasing its presence in the U.S. market. The chipmaker sells a wide range of chipsets in the United States. But the majority of its C3 processors are sold in India, China and Europe.