Tom Simonite

A View from Tom Simonite

Intel Seeks Security in Silicon

Why would the chip giant buy antivirus firm McAfee?

  • August 19, 2010

Chipmaker Intel surprised even the savviest tech-watchers today when it announced it is buying security software firm McAfee for almost $8bn. The aforementioned pundits are still yet to agree a firm line on just why the company made the surprise move, but a consensus is emerging: that Intel wants to build directly into its hardware the kind of security features more traditionally provided by software like McAfee’s.

That firm may be best known as a vendor of Windows software intended to keep corporate and home users secure from viruses. But some things MacAfee does are a more obvious fit, such as encryption software that secures data stored on a disk.

Intel is known to be interested in developing chips that can directly handle algorithms and other building blocks of cryptography systems, for example developing a way to generate truly random numbers in silicon. Senior members of Intel Labs wrote earlier this year of an interest in being able to run some applications, for example for internet banking, using a super secure partition of a computer created at a hardware level.

Thinking about mobile computing provides more pieces to the puzzle. The BBC were told by Intel that the way security is handled today isn’t quite right for a tomorrow featuring “billions” of internet-connected objects from phones to TVs and more. Hackers have shown recently how cars and ATMs–both becoming more internet capable–can be compromised.

Bloomberg’s coverage notes that despite Intel’s dominance in desktop and laptop computers, there is not a phone on the market today packing an Intel chip. It also quotes an analyst who points out that building functions and features into hardware instead of software saves power–a particularly valuable on a battery-powered devices. As smartphones become ubiquitous and powerful, they are looking increasingly vulnerable to the threats that plague conventional computers. Running antivirus software as we do on computers is a non-starter on devices with scant battery life. Finding a way to offer security with hardware could offer Intel a way into a fast growing market some claim it is currently on course to miss out on.

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