Trusted Platform Module: A delayed reaction?

Trusted Platform Module: A delayed reaction?
Trusted Platform Module: A delayed reaction?

Despite the ubiquity of the Trusted Platform Module, hold-ups exist and adoption remains slow. Deb Radcliff reports.

In 2008, an unencrypted laptop went missing from the car of a worker at Barnabas Health, the largest healthcare system in the US state of New Jersey. And, although fewer than 2,000 records were exposed, the healthcare provider subsequently made self-encrypting drive (SED), a type of hardware-based encryption, a mandatory part of its mobile device upgrade process.

“Everyone who gets a new laptop must have SED enabled,” says Hussein Syed, director of IT security at Barnabas, which consists of 4,600 physicians, seven medical facilities and two business offices. “We don't want to incur another incident because someone left a document on a device and then lost it.”

The encryption cannot be tampered with by users, and access is easier because assigned users now need only one master login to access all their provisioned resources (via Active Directory). SED takes only minutes to initially encrypt the full contents of the hard drive, compared with 36 hours using software-based disk encryption. And, using a third-party encryption management service from Wave Systems, machines can be provisioned just as quickly, says Syed.

Now, with SEDs present in virtually every one of its 1,280-issued laptops, Barnabas is turning its attention to SED's companion technology, the Trusted Platform Module (TPM).

Maturing encryption
TPM, which began shipping last October with Windows 8 and the Windows 12 management server, has become ubiquitous. The specification integrates with other modules from the Trusted Computing Group to support system integrity checks, disk encryption, key management and other functions at machine speed. The Trusted Computing Group, parent to both TPM and SED, claims there are more than a billion PCs, servers, embedded systems, network gear and other devices with TPM and/or SED functionality embedded in them. Yet, according to analysts, actual adoption of these technologies is difficult to measure and has been slow to catch on.

“I am surprised at the modest adoption of hardware roots of trust, in spite of the ubiquity of embedded TPMs in enterprise-class machines,” says Derek Brink, an analyst with Aberdeen Group, a Boston-based provider of intelligence research. “It seems a question of commitment and will, rather than waiting for the technology to be available and mature.”

In a comparison study that Aberdeen published last June, companies using SED experienced 50 per cent fewer incidents and saved £50 per endpoint per year compared with those using other forms of disk encryption. One thing holding up widespread adoption of TPM and SED is interoperability, according to users and analysts. Apple, Google and Microsoft all use different standards, not all of which support TPM, says Roger Kay, founder and president of analyst Endpoint Technologies Associates. The other problem is key management, he adds.

“As with PKI encryption for the PC world, the problem is the certificate authority (CA),” he adds.

Most organisations will require a third-party intermediary, such as Wave Systems, which needs to interoperate with other CAs, say analysts. There will also be those with enterprise expertise in key management who will want to manage their own keys.

Rooting rootkits
To support enterprise key management and interoperability, the Trusted Computing Group is putting a lot of emphasis on Windows 8 endpoints, including built-in TPM supportable through Windows 12 server. TPM enhances support for SED and includes a pre-boot system integrity check that the accessing system's basic input/output system (BIOS) and registries haven't been changed from a pre-measured state.

“TPM has mainly been used by a small segment of PC users to tie their Windows BitLocker and other encryption keys to user devices,” says Steven Sprague, CEO of Wave Systems. “Now, these features are native.”

Of all the features in TPM today, machine attestation – or the ability to boot up in safe mode, check the machine's integrity and remotely attest that its settings have not been changed – is the most important feature, says Neil Kittleson, Trusted Computing Group portfolio manager at the National Security Agency (NSA).

Since the Trusted Computing Group's inception ten years ago, the NSA has been heavily invested in using the
not-for-profit's technologies in its high-assurance platform.

“TPM capabilities represent a shift against today's attackers who are embedding rootkits beneath the notice of software-based security solutions,” Kittleson says. “We found TPM works very well for our high-assurance platforms.”

In a demo, a simulated attack on a TPM-protected device at the NSA stopped malware from spreading out of a virtual machine onto a host system. Researchers demonstrated a failed attestation when an infected device tried to connect. In that case, access was denied, and an alert sent to the mobile management administrator as the authentication server detected changes in the registry.

Despite this success, TPM is only in use among a “miniscule amount of devices” used across the vast defence network supported by the NSA, says Kittleson.

Adoption of Windows 8 and the upgrade of the key management infrastructure should help speed up adoption across the US Defense Department's networks and other organisations supported by the NSA. It should also propel the Barnabas operation into full adoption.

While deployments may seem slow at this time, the licensing costs of TPM modules are declining, and interoperability standards are improving, say experts. This market penetration, combined with new risks introduced as mobile endpoints continue to proliferate, means it is
only a matter of time before the use of TPM technologies becomes more common than not, according to both Syed and Kittleson.

“The real driver is mobility,” Endpoint's Kay adds. “If every device is a potential attack point, we need to protect those endpoints with hardware-based security.”

This article originally appeared in the US edition of SC Magazine.

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