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Windows Security On A Chip

Microsoft Corp.'s plan to hardwire computer security into a silicon chip rather than relying on software alone will make its debut in the next release of the Windows PC operating system that will ship late next year.

The technology, to be described by Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates during a speech in Seattle on Monday, will protect the startup of PCs equipped with a security chip and ensure that sensitive files aren't accessible when someone tries to boot the computer using a portable hard drive or floppy disk.

Gates also was expected to showcase other features of the frequently delayed operating system code-named Longhorn, including improved graphics that support see-through windows, better ways to visualize data, more sensible file organization and faster searching.

During his keynote at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference, Gates was expected to declare that Longhorn will be Microsoft's most secure operating system ever.

Microsoft has been under enormous pressure to improve security on its operating systems, says Technology Analyst Larry Magid.

"It has provided numerous fixes or "patches" for its current versions of Windows but the hackers always seem to find a way around them," he says. "The new operating system will be architected from the ground up with security in mind which should be a big improvement, but not the end of the game. Security issues will be with us for a long time to come."

For the first time, the company will implement the company's vision of boosting security by placing cryptographic keys in silicon chips rather than storing them as data on a hard drive. It's much more difficult to crack a chip than it is a program.

The initiative — once code-named Palladium but later called the Next Generation Secure Computing Base, or NGSCB — was announced in 2002 and was quickly attacked by privacy advocates, Microsoft critics and others as a mechanism for taking control of PCs from their owners.

Some claimed it would enable strict copyright protection schemes for music, movies and software. It also could restrict the tinkering that has driven computer industry innovation over the years, they said.

But the first NGSCB product — secure startup — isn't expected to be as controversial as chip-based rights management. Microsoft, however, has not said how else Longhorn might interact with the chip.

The added security comes with a price, warns Magid.

"People will still be able to upgrade their machines with the new operating system but to take advantage of all the new security features, they may have to buy a new PC," he said.

Neil Charney, director of product management in Microsoft's Windows group, said the feature is most likely to be used by business computers, especially in laptops that store sensitive data that could come back to haunt companies after a theft.

A number of companies, including Microsoft, are working together to beef up security using a combination of hardware and software. NGSCB is just one iteration, though it's likely to have the most impact given Microsoft's dominance.

Some PC vendors, including IBM Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co., have been offering PCs with security chips for years. On Monday, HP announced it will support Longhorn's implementation on some of its business computers and workstations.

Gates also was expected to unveil other security enhancements in Longhorn, including user accounts that don't always have the highest privileges but are flexible enough to allow software installation. Other operating systems such as Linux and Mac OS X support such accounts by prompting for an administrator's password when needed.

Longhorn also will include a number of visual improvements such as icons that show content from the documents they represent. The software also is expected to introduce more intuitive ways of organizing files as well as faster searching.

Charney said the features will work even without a new file system that was originally scheduled to ship with Longhorn. The updated file system, called WinFS, is now slated to be available in a preview release when the final version of Longhorn is shipped in late 2006.