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Suppliers to add security features to wireless comm chips

Posted: 25 Nov 2002 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:security? wireless-modem chips? mobile networks? encryption? mobile handsets?

Infineon Technologies AG has made a strategic decision to put security features into its wireless-modem chips, a move that points up concerns across the industry about the safety of mobile networks.

Infineon and a handful of other chip vendors are gambling on the assumption that system OEMs will soon be clamoring for wireless solutions able to handle strong encryption - well beyond what is now specified in wireless communication standards.

In the next few months Infineon will unveil "a new architecture to implement a security subsystem directly into wireless- modem functions" for mobile handsets, WLANs and Bluetooth, Ulrich Hamann, the CEO responsible for Infineon's newly established Secure Mobile Solutions business group, told EE Times. He withheld most details of the Munich-based chipmaker's strategy but added, "Silicon-based security is the key to trust in tomorrow's mobile information society" and will play "a decisive role in the reliability of the data source and the data's confidentiality, integrity and availability."

Indeed, "WLAN products today have little or no security and anyone who wants to attack an application can do that using a simple setup of a laptop, a receiver, and simple software tools," cautioned Cees Jan Koomen, chairman of SafeNet Europe, a seller of security intellectual-property (IP) solutions. "Having security integrated into wireless modems is the key to protecting users from security breaches they may not always be aware of."

Infineon's Hamann cited a broad range of new wireless applications and services, including transactions of goods, money and content, that he believes would be non-starters without a sound security mechanism. "We believe that a crypto controller must be directly implemented into a communication chip," he said, "and that must be a part of the architecture for wireless-chip solutions."

Hamann predicted that 100 percent of Bluetooth and WLAN chips on the market would feature security IP blocks within the next 24 months. Similar solutions equipped with embedded crypto controllers will be necessary for high-end mobile handsets, he added.

Although he hesitated to make such a sweeping statement, Venkat Bahl, business development manager of business-line connectivity at Philips Semiconductors, agreed that "the mindset on a market is changing."

Bahl, who heads up an initiative for ZigBee, a low-bit-rate standard for wireless personal-area networks, said that "a couple of years ago when we started developing ZigBee, we were not considering security issues." In fact, a lot of applications ZigBee covers don't need it - "For example, who would need security when ZigBee is used to wirelessly turn a TV on and off at home?" Bahl asked.

Keeping control

But when ZigBee is used as a wireless command-and-control standard to link equipment inside factories and buildings, "you don't want a guy outside - who is not a building facility manager - to start hitting buttons to turn on heat or lighting," said Bahl.

The ZigBee group is currently in catch-up mode, working to integrate four levels of security into its spec, Bahl said: Level 0, with no security; Level 1, which encrypts packets using the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES); Level 2, for symmetric-key distribution; and Level 3, enabling public-key distribution from a trusted source. The goal is to get all levels defined and specified into the standard by mid-2003.

Unlike WLAN or ZigBee standards, Bluetooth proponents claim that security was never an afterthought for them. Bluetooth was designed from the ground up with a lot of tools for security, said Johan Akesson, marketing director at Ericsson Technology Licensing. "Authentication and crypto - with 128-bit crypto keys - are already part of the Bluetooth spec and it is up to application developers to use those tools," he said.

Using Bluetooth to wirelessly connect a PC to a public printer will not require security. But electronic money exchange via Bluetooth would definitely need it. Ericsson Technology Licensing has devised a smart algorithm for a security design solution specified in the Bluetooth spec. A hardware-intensive crypto IP block based on a smart algorithm that is already embedded in Ericsson's Bluetooth solution, where it uses up "only one-fourth of the power consumption" of a generic security design solution specified in the Bluetooth spec, Akesson said.

When mobile payment starts to take off, OEMs may start asking for additional security even for Bluetooth. Akesson said, however, that is not happening just yet.

Security shuffle

Infineon's recent organizational reshuffling, under which two formerly independent divisions - Wireless Solutions and Chip Card ICs - were merged, is no accident, but a strategic move tied to the company's mobile-security mission, said Hamann.

Infineon, which claims a 40 percent share of a global smart-card IC market, hopes to become the first company to integrate its own IP in both security and wireless technologies into one portfolio, and roll out a range of secure mobile solutions.

Philips Semiconductors' Bahl acknowledged that his group, too, is "currently looking into" internal crypto IP blocks originally developed for Philips' own smart cards. "The goal is to reuse internal IP blocks as much as possible" in the company's wireless solutions, he said.

Power dissipation and costs are the two looming questions that chip and system companies must answer before embedding high security in portable products like mobile handsets, PDAs, and notebook computers featuring wireless-network technologies. SafeNet, which offers chip vendors a wide range of embedded IP options for security applications, including the WLAN market, claimed that having security in hardware will contribute to lower power dissipation. SafeNet has licensed its technology to companies such as Texas Instruments Inc. and Centillium Communications.

SafeNet's Koomen said that depending on the application, technology based on both virtual private networks and the Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) can be used as cryptographic engines to provide end-to-end security appropriate for certain wireless-modem chips. But he cautioned that there are several reasons not to provide high security for Bluetooth.

Although the Bluetooth protocol already provides limited security measures, Koomen pointed out that data transmitted across Bluetooth usually does not need much security. He also noted that the range for most Bluetooth applications is about 30ft, which implies that an attacker would be very close to the user of the application. Most important, "Bluetooth applications are very low cost (below $5), and any additional security feature would add a considerable percentage to that," he said.

In contrast, WLAN chips have every reason to feature much higher security, given the range of the technology, the types of data transmitted and the virtually nonexistent security built into today's WLAN protocols.

Wireless LAN security is a work in progress. The IEEE's WLAN group has adopted the 802.1x standard, designed to provide user authentication. It is also developing the yet-to-be-standardized 802.11i specification, which includes a key-distribution framework that should replace the manually configured Wired Equivalent Privacy spec. WEP was the first serious attempt to fix the insecurity of wireless LANs, but later proved unsafe at any key length.

The 802.11i standard also allows use of the AES encryption algorithm. But going beyond such WLAN security standards, some in the industry argue that using an unguarded network means that eventually, strong encryption such as Internet Protocol Secure, SSL, or Secured Shell should be required.

Infineon's Hamann said that under a new architecture integrating a security subsystem in silicon, specific hardware components are added to deal with the keys required by strong encryption, while certain elements of security algorithms can be shared by hardware and software. Such a hardware block will amount to only "a few square millimeters" on a chip using a 0.15m process technology, he said.

- Junko Yoshida

EE Times





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