Secure Chips for Gadgets Set to Soar

Consumer electronics will become an exploding market over the next six years for chipmakers who incorporate security features into their silicon, according to a research report released last week.

While hardware’s role in protecting content on consumer devices is small today, that won’t be the case in the coming years, according to technology research firm ABI Research.

By 2013, some 60 million consumer electronic devices will ship with hardware security, predicted ABI Principal Analyst Steve Wilson in the report, “Hardware Security in the Consumer Electronic Market.”

“There are basically no secure processors in consumer electronics right now,” he said in a statement. “They will start showing up in commercially available devices in the next couple of years and will take hold rapidly starting in 2009.”

Attack of the Content Snatchers

He predicted that hardware security will branch out from early adopters, like the cable TV industry, into the business sector, where PCs are already being shipped with a secure hardware standard called “Trusted Computing,” into mobile handsets and beyond.

“There are hardware features that are currently being implemented that are going to make platforms much more secure,” he told TechNewsWorld.

It should also make it tougher for content snatchers to compromise digital rights management protection schemes, he added.

“Embedded processor manufacturers are making their processors more secure,” he observed, “so you can run software on the device that’s much less prone to being hacked or attacked by other software.”

Performance Trumps Security

The initial driver of hardware security, though, may have less to do with better security than it has to do with better system performance.

As the demands that content such as high-definition television programming make on the central processors in electronic devices grows, so, too, will the processing demands to keep that content secure.

To keep those security demands from swamping the performance of a system, system architects have started handing off those functions to embedded systems dedicated to security concerns, according to Al Hawtin, vice president for marketing and business development for Elliptic, an embedded chipmaker.

“As folks go after video in various formats, it’s getting more difficult for a processor to handle from a cryptographic point of view, so they’re offloading the processor with a crypto engine to give it more horsepower to address other things going on in the system,” he told TechNewsWorld.

“Like a graphics accelerator, cryptography is an intense task,” he added, “so you punt it out to a little processing engine.

“Hardware security will become more pervasive for capacity reasons in the coming few years,” he continued. “Improved security will come a little later.”

Hardware Emulation

Any improvements in system security, however, will likely be met by counter moves by content bandits, cautioned Rob Enderle, president and principal analyst with the Enderle Group in San Jose, Calif., and a member of the Trusted Computing Group Advisory Council.

“Given time, you can penetrate anything,” he told TechNewsWorld. “In a world of processors that are multifunction like we have now, creating an emulation for hardware isn’t all that difficult.”

“There is no DRM solution that is absolutely effective,” he added.

Quantum Computing

That will become increasingly apparent when quantum computers start arriving on the scene, he noted.

Quantum computers — still believed to be decades in the future — will be able to perform an unlimited number of simultaneous operations.

“A quantum computer can, in a matter of milliseconds, break any encryption scheme, any DRM scheme that anyone could come up with,” Enderle said.

“Nothing is unbreakable,” he added, “and when we figure out how to do quantum computing, virtually everything will be breakable, so you’re chasing an ever-moving target.”

1 Comment

  • On the subject of quantum computation…
    The statements that quantum computers "will be able to perform an unlimited number of simultaneous operations" and "break any encryption scheme, any DRM scheme that anyone could come up with" are simply _not correct_. The overhype surrounding quantum computing is a real concern to the scientists working on this field.

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