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New Chip Shuts Out Cybercrooks

Engineers have crammed an electromechanical combination lock onto a computer chip that they say can shut out cybercrooks. The device erects a barrier to computer intrusions that is far more difficult to penetrate than security software, the only option available today, say the lock's inventors.

Because security software does not physically isolate a system but monitors electronic codes, determined hackers on the Internet or a modem connection can keep trying passwords and other keys until they breach the defenses.

The new lock, however, accepts only one number among a million possibilities as its correct combination. If a remote troublemaker attempts a break-in with the wrong code just once, the device disconnects the computer from its network. When the lock closes, only someone physically present at the computer can reopen it.

The new lock, which employs concepts developed for protecting nuclear weapons, "puts a physical barrier between an asset and a threat," says the device's designer, Frank J. Peter of Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M. "And it absolutely, positively can't be circumvented in software."

Peter and his colleagues have packed intricate machinery into the silicon device the size of a shirt button. Electrically driven shafts studded with microscopic teeth turn tiny gears to set the combination. If triggered by a bogus code, the mechanism throws a switch that interrupts the flow of electric current or light through the device, temporarily isolating the computer.

Such a drastic response may prove impractical, except for restricted-use computer systems, where a small number of users all know the code and someone is continuously on duty to reset machines, says Peter Mell of the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Md.

Moreover, attackers can send trouble-causing electronic mail and other data without having to gain access to a computer by logging on. Hackers could also maliciously trigger the lock to deny use of computers to their owners, he notes.

During the next 2 years, the inventors may consider such questions in preparation for commercializing the technology. Perhaps they will choose to allow more than one false start, for instance, since computer users who rely on remote log-ins may occasionally type the wrong password.

They also hope to find a company to mass-produce the locks inexpensively via methods used by integrated-circuit makers.

By P. Weiss