With Intel's recent purchasing habits, could crossdressing be in their future?

Subject: Editorial | July 20, 2011 - 06:10 PM |
Tagged: vpro, TPM, speculation, security, mcafee, intel txt, Intel, infineon, amt

Not too long ago the tech world was buzzing with the news that Intel had aquired McAfee for $7.68 billion.  This gave them the knowledge base to start thinking about putting antivirus technology directly onto their chips, which seemed far more likely than an Intel branded software antivirus product.  When Intel CTO Justin Rattner started talking about technology that resembled the failed attempts at digital rights management, such as Microsoft's Palladium, or the Trusted Platform Module, aka TPM, a different idea was promoted with its own acronyms; Intel Active Management Technology (AMT) and Intel Trusted Execution Technology (Intel TXT).  This theory was lent credence by the mention of Intel's vPro and a desire by Intel to move security to the top of their list of priorities.  By integrating security software directly into vPro architecture, it might not even be necessary to place antivirus code directly on their hardware. Adding optimization to product architecture that Intel trusts absolutely, as they made it themselves, and the overall level of security on an Intel based virtual machine would be greatly increased.

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Then Intel went and muddied the water with the $1.9 billion purchase of Infineon Technologies AG’s wireless business, which doesn't own manufacturing facilities but does own the intellectual property and patents for chips providing wireless communication.  Suddenly some discarded theories about the purchase of McAfee seemed valid again.  One possibility that was bandied about was the idea of Intel moving into ARM territory in the cell phone business.  With Intel's new focus on low power chips, with Atom being the starting point, the idea of Intel moving into providing secure CPUs appropriate for cell phones and tablets became much more believable.  With the current rise of viruses targeted at those mobile platforms and the vulnerabilities present in Android and Windows based phones having hardware based antivirus, or at least optimized hardware, makes a lot of sense.  

It also differentiates them from ARM, who has more market experience making ultra low power chips but certainly does not own an antivirus vendor.  The security concerns with cell phones and tablets will continue to increase at the same pace as the capabilities of the devices increase.  Where once bluejacking was the biggest concern of a cell phone user, a smart phone user can browse the world wild web and expose themselves to all sorts of nastiness, including more than just the nastiness they intended to browse for.  A hardware solution would leave more processing power for the user; running Norton 360 on a cell phone or tablet would chew up a lot of cycles.

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Today those muddied waters were stirred up even more as Intel announced it is planning to buy Fulcrum Microsystems, maker of high end 10Gbps and 40Gbps ethernet switches.  This purchase would support the theory decided before the purchase of Infineon's wireless group; that Intel is taking a serious look at a total TPM ecosystem.  In order to truly trust your platform you need to do more than secure your endpoints.  If your server is running AMT or Intel TXT, then you can be assured that any virtual machine running on it can be trusted.  As well, if both the server and client are running processors capable of Intel's TPM (sounds so much better that DRM, eh?)  again both machines can be considered trusted platforms. 

That does not help with trusting data which has been transferred over a WAN, or in some cases even a LAN.   Data transfer allows an attacker a means of entry, or at least a way of denying data transfer.  With a trusted platform, any data which does not match what is expected by the receiving machine will be prevented from running, so a successful man in the middle attack might not allow remote code execution or privilege escalation but would certainly act as a DoS attack as the TPM client refuses to accept the incoming data.   Once the routers and switches involved in the data transfer are secured with the exact same TPM specifications, the entire route is protected and can all be considered part of the same Trusted Platform.  The network devices would reject any code injection attempted on the data during transfer, allowing data to flow freely inside a LAN as well as customized WANs. 

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Returning to the secure cell phone theory, we can now consider the possibility of a TPM compliant cell phone thanks to the theoretical integration of Intel processors into your phone and tablet. Now you would be able to include your mobile communications into your TPM ecosystem.  Properly implemented that security and not only will you challenge ARM 's market share by out-securing them, you could topple RIM's share of the business market as a BlackBerry may be handy to the sales team but they are a nightmare for the IT/IS security team.  Nothing is perfect but that would be a huge step towards defeating the current attack vectors that effect business systems.  So far Intel is not saying much, so all we can do is speculate ... which is fun.