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ARM adds hardware-based security to its cores

Chip designer ARM is to add extensions to its processor core next year which incorporate hardware-based security technologies.

Future versions of the company's ARM core for mobile and wireless handset chips will contain protected areas for storage of user authentication keys, and areas of the processor that are off-limits to unauthorised users, said Mary Inglis, director of operating systems and alliances for ARM.

TrustZone, as the extensions are called, creates a parallel domain where secure applications can run alongside nonsecure applications. The operating system or application suppliers set the security policies as to what data is designated as secure, and what is not.

As the computing power of smartphones and other mobile devices grows, users will need to feel secure while making financial transactions, sending e-mail, or accessing corporate data, for adoption of those devices to become widespread, Inglis said.

Crucial software applications often have to be downloaded to a handheld device, which creates a number of openings for hackers or viruses to exploit.

ARM is adding what it calls an S-bit, for security, to the sixth version of its architecture. The S-bit is applied to code that needs to be secure, and a separate portion of an ARM processor monitors and identifies data tagged with an S-bit. That data is run separately through the processor from nonsecure data.

Security extensions were also added to the level-1 memory system. Most processors have a small amount of memory stored in a cache close to the CPU . These memory-level extensions can recognise the S-bit, and control the flow of secure and nonsecure data from the memory cache to the CPU.

The operating system on a TrustZone device will also boot from the secure portion of the processor, checking to make sure everything is safe within the operating system and applications before booting the entire device.

ARM designs and licenses processor cores to other semiconductor companies that manufacture chips based on that design. Some of the London company's customers include Intel, Texas Instruments, and Motorola, three of the largest mobile device chip makers.

Tom Krazit writes for IDG News Service


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