Mobile chips face lockdown to prevent hacks

Agam Shah

Chip makers want to make hardware the first layer of defense against data breaches and other attacks on tablets and smartphones.

Mobile devices are becoming increasingly vulnerable, with more personal information, banking data, passwords and contacts residing on devices without any protection, said presenters at the Hot Chips conference in Cupertino, California, on Sunday.

The NSA revelations and a mounting pile of data breaches have reminded hardware makers that well-designed chips for PCs, servers and mobile devices, can minimize, if not prevent, attacks, said Leendert VanDoom, corporate fellow at Advanced Micro Devices.

"You can't open a newspaper without reading about a security attack," VanDoom said.

Most attacks today exploit software bugs, but it's possible for hackers to isolate keyboards, voice, sensors and even screens, snoop for information and send data back to rogue servers, said Vikas Chandra, principal engineer at ARM's research and development division.

A well-designed system can provide multiple layers to prevent malicious attacks and injection of rogue code, said Chandra, adding that the hardware, security subsystem and software on mobile hardware need to work together.

Besides ARM, chip makers like Intel and AMD are working to bring more security features so mobile devices are shielded from attacks. The companies are knitting together hardware and software to work more cohesively in a system, and also establishing hypervisors, secure boot layers, and segmented areas -- much like sandboxes -- in which code could be executed without compromising a system.

Most mobile device users are not tech savvy, and haven't secured devices with passwords or pins. Few devices have security software to prevent malware, and trojans running on social networking apps could collect personal information and send it back to rogue servers, Chandra said.

ARM is improving its security layer called TrustZone to prevent such attacks, Chandra said. The layer establishes a trusted execution environment in which code can be safely executed without affecting the entire system.

The company also wants to eliminate users from having to use multifactor authentication and entering multiple passwords, Chandra said, adding that there are more secure ways to log-in to websites.

He gave the example of the FIDO authenticator, in which users can login through fingerprint scanning or face recognition. The log-in generates a private key that is encrypted, sent to a FIDO server, which then decrypts the key. That emerging technology works within TrustZone, which protects private keys.

The form of authentication is being promoted by the FIDO Alliance, which was established early last year and boasts members such as ARM, Google, Microsoft, Bank of America, MasterCard, PayPal, Samsung, Visa, Lenovo and others.

It's also important to make sure servers are ready to deal with different security layers in mobile devices and the new authentication techniques, said Ruby Lee, professor of electrical engineering at Princeton University.

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