Allen: Integrated chip provides all-purpose security

Wired into PC motherboard, Trusted Platform Module offers multilayer e-authentication

Almost everyone working in an office uses a computer connected to a network. So computer users should be aware of the daily challenges information technology departments face in fighting viruses, malware and Trojan horses. They should also be aware of emerging threats such as identity theft initiated through e-mails that trick users into believing they are on a legitimate Web site. The usual suspects for this phishing activity are penny-ante thieves who want names, bank account numbers and passwords.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology, the General Services Administration, the Homeland Security Department and the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council (FFIEC) all agree: When someone’s true identity is essential, a name and password are not enough. In e-authentication, multifactor — more than one security function — hardware-based security tokens are becoming a requirement for sensitive data or high-value transactions that involve user identities.

Recent government legislation and directives — such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act and Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12 — have created requirements limiting who has access to systems and data and controlling access based on policies and authorizations.

Until recently, strong authentication meant distributing separate tokens or devices, including smart cards, RSA SecureIDs, biometric readers or USB keys to users. Because this approach meant incremental purchase and support costs, such devices have been used for relatively specialized applications.

Then a new security hardware technology standard, called the Trusted Platform Module (TPM), developed by the Trusted Computing Group (TCG), appeared on the scene. Now being sold in high volume in PCs, it provides multifactor authentication as an integrated feature in the PC platform at significantly lower cost.

What is TPM? It is a robust, standardized security chip that is integrated as a permanent part of the PC motherboard. Open specifications developed by TCG, an industry standards organization with more than 120 member companies, define TPM, its application programming interfaces and security protocols. TCG started with PC security specifications. It is also developing specifications for adding hardware-based security to peripherals such as disk drives, keyboards, graphics cards, mobile phones, servers and other devices. TCG is focused on providing an open-standard security solution for all computing devices and networks.

With TPM, organizations can generate keys for signing documents and files, encrypting data, measuring the software on the PC to allow checking for any unauthorized modifications and protecting identity credentials.

For federal agencies, the first step is to specify that TPM and any other authentication components such as biometric and smart card readers are required features in every new federal PC or platform. Second, TPM, with appropriate software packages, has to be integrated into agencies’ existing identity directories, access systems and policy management for strong authentication. Finally, as new solutions for strong authentication emerge, TPM should be an essential platform element, regardless of the other required identity tokens.

Allen is executive vice president of Wave Systems, which makes security software.

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