For the past two years, some of the world’s biggest chip makers have battled a series of hardware flaws, like Meltdown and Spectre, which made it possible — though not easy — to pluck passwords and other sensitive secrets directly from their processors. The chip makers rolled out patches, but required the companies to rethink how they approach chip security.
Now, Microsoft thinks it has the answer with its new security chip, which it calls Pluton. The chip, announced today, is the brainchild of a partnership between Microsoft and chip makers Intel, AMD and Qualcomm.
Pluton acts as a hardware root-of-trust, which in simple terms protects a device’s hardware from tampering, such as from hardware implants or by hackers exploiting flaws in the device’s low-level firmware. By integrating the chip inside future Intel, AMD and Qualcomm central processor units, or CPUs, it makes it far more difficult for hackers with physical access to a computer to launch hardware attacks and extract sensitive data, the companies said.
“The Microsoft Pluton design will create a much tighter integration between the hardware and the Windows operating system at the CPU that will reduce the available attack surface,” said David Weston, director of enterprise and operating system security at Microsoft.
Microsoft said Pluton made its first appearance in the Xbox One back in 2013 to make it far more difficult to hack the console or allow gamers to run pirated games. The chip later graduated to Microsoft’s cloud service Azure Sphere, used to secure low-cost Internet of Things devices.
The idea now is to bring that same technology, with some improvements, to new Windows 10 devices.
The chip comes with immediate benefits, like making hardware attacks against Windows devices far more difficult to succeed. But the chip also solves a major security headache by keeping the device’s firmware up-to-date.
Whether or not the Pluton chip can stand the test of time is another matter. Most of the chip vulnerability research has been done by third-party researchers through extensive, and often tedious work. Microsoft’s Weston said the Pluton chip has undergone a security stress-test by its own internal red team and by external vendors. But that could come back to haunt the company if it got something wrong. Case in point: just last month, security researchers found an “unfixable” security flaw in Apple’s T2 security chip — a custom-built chip in most modern Macs that’s analogous to Microsoft’s Pluton — that could open up Macs to the very security threats that the chip is supposed to prevent.
Microsoft declined to say if it planned to offer the Pluton chip designs to other chip makers or if it planned to make the designs open-source for anyone to use, but said it plans to share more details in the future, leaving the door open to the possibility.