Crypto chip: How the TPM bolsters enterprise security

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Want to make your endpoints and servers more secure, and easier to manage?

Consider the Trusted Platform Module (TPM), a hardware-based cryptography chip built into virtually every enterprise PC and notebook, and now installed in over 100 million PCs.

Securing an enterprise takes every proven tool at your disposal. Accordingly, many organisations have begun employing a security chip built into virtually all enterprise PC or notebook motherboards that ship today: the Trusted Platform Module (TPM).

This secure cryptographic chip provides a hardware-based approach to managing user authentication, network access, and data protection, including everything from multi-factor authentication and machine binding for removable media, to irrevocable digital signatures and full-disk encryption (FDE).

According to a March, 2008 study by the Aberdeen Group, the current top uses for the TPM are user authentication, network access, and data protection. For example, four out of five TPM-using organisations use the chip to manage PC login, user authentication, and to secure the boot sequence, and almost as many also rely on the chip to authenticate a PC during the network access negotiation process. The survey also found that two-thirds of TPM users rely on it to secure their full-disk hard drive encryption processes.

The hardware-based TPM can be a powerful tool for improving on software-based security. In fact, “the most compelling finding from this study is that users who have activated their existing trusted computing infrastructure actually have superior security governance, risk management and compliance [capabilities],” notes Derek E. Brink, vice president and research director for IT security at Aberdeen.

That said, many IT and security managers report that they're unfamiliar with the TPM. “The research shows that a high percentage of trusted computing-ready devices and infrastructure already exists within the enterprise, but overall awareness about the benefits of trusted computing is still relatively low.”

TPM 101
What exactly is the TPM, and who's behind it? Briefly, the TPM is a hardware-based cryptographic chip built to protect keys and identities, and create a hardware-based foundation of trust. Using a TPM, enterprises can implement, manage, and enforce such things as trusted cryptography, storage, integrity management, attestation, and many other information security capabilities.

The TPM specification itself, which is open and vendor-neutral, was developed by a standards group within Trust Computing Group, which has 140 or so members, including software and hardware vendors, as well as end users such as Boeing, General Dynamics, and Lockheed-Martin. The latest and most widespread version of the TPM, 1.2, is certified as compatible with all versions of the Vista OS.

Why should I activate the TPM? For starters, because hardware-based security is better than software-based security. For example, take data encryption products.

Many software-based encryption packages exist today, in addition to capabilities now built into operating systems: BitLocker in Vista, FileVault in Mac OS X, and dm-crypt in Linux.

But any expert will tell you that with the right tools or attacks, you can break them: you can boot a drive via Firewire, or chill a DRAM chip for long enough to recover encryption keys.

No security is perfect, but hardware-based security is a much tougher nut to crack than software-based security. Furthermore, with a TPM, the encryption key never has to be stored in RAM; it can remain resident on the cryptographic chip. And hacking a crypto chip is much more difficult than recovering information from an operating system.

What in particular is driving enterprise adoption of the TPM? Driving TPM adoption are endpoint security challenges facing IT and security managers today: weak network and PC log-in passwords, poor machine identity, and not knowing exactly who's on the enterprise network, wireless access points, or logged into the VPN. Don't forget, as well, the ongoing threats from phishing, pharming, spam, and malware in general.

The TPM addresses security problems by adding hardware-based trust to the equation. If a user ID and password are stolen or cracked, it's not enough -- if you also tie access to having the TPM chip. The end result is a more trustworthy computing environment.

Beyond the threat of data breaches, what's the “why now” factor for IT managers? First of all, the TPM is installed in more than 100 million PCs that have already shipped.

And when the TPM is already on the machine, if you choose to enable it, it just works. That means that  an IT department activates every TPM and enables “drive locking,” they can tie a hard drive to a particular TPM.

So if that laptop is powered down and gets stolen, it doesn't matter (at least from an information-loss standpoint) if it ends up for sale on eBay. The hard drive will just be a brick.

Second, virtually every enterprise PC shipped today — including Lenovo, Dell, HP, MPC, Asus, Sony, Toshiba, Fujitsu, and others — includes a built-in TPM, as well as bundled TPM management software.

For example, Embassy Trust Suites from Wave Systems is part of the standard enterprise client build shipped on all Dell machines, and this software supports full-disk encryption solutions.

That means client software for managing TPM is already on the machine. If an enterprise wants to take advantage of it, they just need to purchase the server-side software.

So the TPM is not active, by default? No, the only catch with the TPM is that though it's built into virtually every enterprise-class machine that ships today — PC, Mac, and oftentimes, Linux,  as well as numerous consumer platforms -- you must activate it.

In general, are IT managers and security managers aware of what a TPM can do, once activated? Typically not. Even for managers who've heard of the TPM, or know that it's a cryptographic chip, the question often is: “I have all these devices with a TPM built in, what can it do for me?”

And when told it can provide, out of the box, strong authentication to their remote access IPsec VPN, enterprise PKI key management and exchange, and that it then is also a core capability as they move to a network access control solution, they're very interested.

In addition, for network policy enforcement points — Checkpoint firewalls, Cisco switchers and routers, and other 802.1x-compatible devices are TPM-capable by default.

Who's using the TPM and why? Drivers for using the TPM are very consistent across industries. For example, one financial services company has computed that the cost of lost data far exceeds the cost of losing a machine.

So that's an easy CFO decision to make. Then on the private side, the driver is often laws or regulations. For law firm clients, it's attorney/client privilege.

For others, it's complying with data privacy regulations. Or if you're a utility, it's really been about controlling access to competitive information and preventing losses. Finally, if you're a government agency, such as the National Security Agency (NSA), which utilises the TPM on its laptops, you simply cannot allow sensitive, confidential, or top secret information to be stored in unencrypted format, as numerous data-loss episodes at the Veterans Administration, Boeing, and other organisations have demonstrated.

How does a TPM work with hardware- and software-based full-disk encryption? Surveying data-at-rest options comes down to a conversation about software versus hardware approaches. And hardware-based approaches completely encrypt the data on the drive in minutes per machine, versus hours per machine in the software world.

Obviously, this has total cost of ownership  and management implications. Also, with hardware there's no impact on machine performance, because the hardware handles the cryptography.

Remember that in an enterprise context, simply having full-disk encryption isn't sufficient. You also have to verify it's active, effective, and in the event the machine is lost or stolen, demonstrate that it complied with security policies.

Accordingly, by using Trusted Platform management software (for hardware FDE and TPMs), if an employee loses a laptop, the IT department can prove that all data on the drive was encrypted, and that the encryption couldn't have been deactivated. At that point, even if the lost or stolen data was confidential, regulated, or contained personally identifiable information, there's no data breach notification requirement.

Will a TPM alone fully encrypt a hard drive? No, the TPM enhances software-based encryption tools by speeding the encryption process and also securing archives with strong authentication.

In addition, the TPM works with any hard drive that has the ability to be fully encrypted, which means the fully encrypting drives now reaching the market, such as from Seagate.

The TPM will also work with the forthcoming Intel chipset, codenamed Montevina, which will enable encryption with any type of software or hardware solution that supports TPM. Also going forward, TCG is creating standards for tape, flash and even optical disks with on-board hardware encryption.

Is a particular combination of encryption technology and TPM avocated? No, because different companies have different data protection requirements. Accordingly, the TPM isn't locked into any one approach. That means you can use the TPM to secure file and folder-level encryption, both on clients and within workgroups, all the way up to whole-disk encryption. 

How can IT managers begin experimenting with the TPM?
First, just try it out. For example, the Microsoft website has excellent instructions for how to enable BitLocker drive encryption. Several other TCG members have solutions that enable full-disk, directory and file-and-folder encryption solutions.

From there, the most efficient and effective way to adopt the TPM is to activate it, and add TPM tools to your enterprise client build. Another best practice: have end users set their own TPM password, and back this with security policies that mandate TPM use, plus an awareness campaign. This, by the way, is the approach used by the NSA.

Who's making tools to utilise the TPM? Software and applications for the TPM are available from NTRU (Core TCG Software Stack), Phoenix Technologies (Award TCG Agent), Softex (Omni Pass and Theft Guard), Utimaco (SafeGuard), VeriSign (Personal Trust Agent), Wave Systems (Embassy Trust Suites), and many others.

What can we expect from the TPM in the future? As enterprises master how to use the TPM, they'll be better positioned to adopt network access control frameworks — as they continue to mature — given that the TPM is compatible with both the TNC framework, as well as Microsoft's Network Access Protection.

Hence you will have a wide variety of widely compatible — that is to say, non-proprietary — options available to meet your network access requirements. This will save companies money, and make network access control frameworks easier to both deploy and manage.

In addition, companies keep creating innovative new ways of putting the TPM to work. For example, the several OEM makers such as Dell, HP and Lenovo provide TPM support at the BIOS-level for security authentication to the machine before the system OS boots.

So the chip is a foundation for future trustworthy computing initiatives? Exactly, because you're relying on a hardware-based cryptographic chip built into a PC to vouch for the endpoint's identity and state.

Sure, when Microsoft Vista connects to the network, it says it's your PC and running all current security patches, but what if it's actually an external attacker using my credentials, or a rootkit on my PC that has exploited a known vulnerability and is pretending otherwise? With a TPM, you'll know the difference.





Top 10 applications for the TPM



Here are 10 examples of what a TPM can do for you:

1. Multi-factor authentication: The TPM provides one factor in a multi-factor authentication model. For example, some enterprises are using digital certificates (PKI) tied to a TPM, as well as biometrics, to eliminate passwords and create stronger authentication models for wired, wireless, and VPN access.

2. Strong login authentication: The TPM ensures that only users with proper credentials get hard drive or network access.

3. Machine binding: Encrypt all data stored on removable media and limit access based on identity.

4. Digital signatures: A TPM enables tamper-resistant digital document signing, to reduce fraud. This is also a useful capability for creating a trusted audit trail — for example, under Sarbanes-Oxley, where a “chain-of-trust” should be followed and must be provable and auditable. The TPM can help create the required, irrevocable audit trail.

5. Password vaults: Many PC manufacturers ship client software that allows users to make immediate use of the TPM. One popular application, for example, is a hardware-based vault for storing digital credentials, such as passwords. Even if the PC is lost or stolen, passwords are protected by the TPM.

6. File and folder encryption: In Microsoft Vista, BitLocker, MS Encrypted File System (EFS) and other third-party applications, using the TPM will encrypt files and folders, thus controlling access to those files and verifying their integrity.

7. Strong client/server authentication: Embassy Trust Suites from Wave Systems Corp. provides key management tools — including key escrow, backup, and recovery capabilities — for IT managers to administer thousands of TPM chips and enforce their application, which is crucial for demonstrating compliance with numerous regulations.

8. Network access control:
In the Trusted Network Connect (TNC) framework, a TPM attests to the identity and even health of a PC state before it is granted network access, or perhaps shunted into a network quarantine.

9. Endpoint integrity: The TPM can hash state information prior to a hard drive shutdown, to report to a host that the machine and its software has not been tampered with when it boots. In addition, it can monitor all applications in the trusted application stack to report they are not tampered with while running.

10. Trusted client/server security: IBM, among others, has begun shipping trusted servers — with a built-in TPM — to create even more secure client/server relationships and computing environments.



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