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Trusted computing a shield against worst attacks?

The case for identifiable devices

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Trusted computing proponents may have found their best argument yet for incorporating specialised security hardware into every computer system.

A report published this week by computer firmware developer Phoenix Technologies concluded that the risks posed by the most damaging digital attacks could be eliminated if companies adopted technology to identify users' computers on the network.

Based on an analysis of the damage numbers included in 107 cybercrime cases prosecuted by the US Department of Justice, the author of the eight-page report - market research firm Trusted Strategies - concluded that the most damaging attacks are those where the offender used stolen usernames and passwords and that such attacks caused on average $1.5m in damages per occurrence.

The win for trusted computing: The analysis estimated that 84 per cent of the attacks disclosed in court filings could have been prevented by checking the identity of the device being used to connect to a company's network as well as the user.

"We didn't know what we were going to get back - what we wanted was to objectively look at the losses caused by attacks," said Dirck Schou, senior director of security solutions for Phoenix Technologies. "What (the analyst) came back with was a strong case for having identifiable devices."

Device identification - or attestation - is a central capability of the hardware component of the trusted computing model, known as the Trusted Platform Module (TPM).

Phoenix Technologies, which makes one version of the basic input/output system (BIOS) that allows operating systems to control a computer's hardware, has created products that work with the TPM to identify the computer systems on a corporate network, but has also created products that can also work without the specialised hardware, Schou said.

The analysis could be the most persuasive argument to date for the adoption of trusted computing to increase network security. Trusted computing has garnered a great deal of criticism because another primary application of the technology - digital rights management (DRM) - could significantly reduce consumers' fair use of copyrighted content and give third-party content companies a great deal of control over users' systems.

Yet, more and more personal computers and laptop systems are shipped with the technology already on board. About 20m computers, most of them laptops, shipped with the Trusted Platform Module in 2005, according to the Trusted Computing Group, the industry association that has created the hardware specification.

The US Army has required that all procured computer systems include the latest version of the Trusted Platform Module. And consumers that buy the latest Mac hardware from Apple are also getting the technology.

However, the increase in the number of systems shipped with the technology does not mean users are sold on trusted computing. While media companies interested in stronger copy protection have already bought into the idea, companies have been a harder sell. Many of them have purchased systems with the feature but have not turned on the capabilities, said Brian Berger, executive vice president for Wave Systems and a board member for the Trusted Computing Group. The Phoenix Technologies study could convince them to do so.

"I think (the trusted computing platform) reduces the risk significantly, but the caveat to that comment is that companies need to deploy TPMs and turn them on," Berger said. "If they implement a model that prevents user name and password from being stolen on a prevalent basis, that is a great solution. If they do platform attestation, that is a great solution as well."

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