Problem: PCs have long been under siege from malware writers and identity thieves, but as more mobile devices connect to the Internet, they too are becoming targets–which could have even worse repercussions. Viruses that infect cell phones or PDAs can spread via Bluetooth, a wireless technology commonly used to connect handheld gadgets to PCs and onboard computers in cars. The consequences could be severe if a virus hopped from a phone to a networked PC behind a corporate firewall–or to a car’s navigation system, jumbling GPS information or worse.
Solution: To make mobile devices more secure, Anand Raghunathan and his team at NEC Laboratories America have given them a supplementary processor, dubbed Moses. The processor performs all of a device’s security functions, such as encryption and user authentication. Using a separate security processor isolates all the system’s encryption keys, which protect passwords and personal information. So if a virus did hit a device, it couldn’t access the passwords needed to log in to a bank account or an office computer; its effects would be limited. In addition, because Moses is specially designed to encrypt and decrypt data efficiently, a phone using the processor requires one-fifth the time and consumes one-third the power of a traditional cell phone performing the same tasks.
The security processors will be installed in millions of cell phones over the next few years, Raghunathan says. And he predicts that other devices will benefit from Moses, too. Radio frequency identification tags, networked sensors, and MP3 players–any small gadget with a limited power supply–could use the technology.