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Microsoft Pluton chip will secure future Windows PCs

Microsoft said its Pluton security chip would protect data even when an attacker has physical control of a computer. Future Windows PCs will include the new chip.

Microsoft will work with chipmakers to install in future Windows 10 PCs security silicon called Pluton that protects data even when an attacker has physical possession of the computer.

The chip would guard against physical attacks better than the Trusted Platform Module (TPM) most PCs currently use as a critical security device, Microsoft said this week. The company has partnered with AMD, Intel and Qualcomm to build Microsoft Pluton into a Windows PC's CPU. The companies did not announce when the first Pluton-equipped computers will hit the market.

Microsoft said attackers with physical access to a computer had compromised the communication channel between the CPU and the TPM. Embedding Pluton in the CPU should remove that vulnerability.

The Pluton chip, used in Microsoft's Xbox One videogame console and its Azure Sphere IoT security platform, will emulate the TPM and serve the same function. Microsoft said all the features that rely on a TPM -- like BitLocker and Windows Defender System Guard --  will work with Pluton, thanks to the emulation.

Microsoft Pluton will protect credentials, such as a user's Windows ID and password, encryption keys and other personal data, the company said.

"None of this information can be removed from Pluton, even if an attacker has installed malware or has complete physical possession of the PC," Microsoft executive David Weston wrote in a blog post.

Chipmaker AMD said it will use Pluton to supplement, but not supplant, its security measures. The company said its AMD Security Processor will coexist and communicate with Pluton in ensuring system integrity.

While Pluton will make computers more secure, it cannot make a device impenetrable, analysts said.

"Chips aren't foolproof," said Liz Miller, an analyst at Constellation Research. She added that researchers recently found a flaw in Apple's T2 security chip that allows attackers root access to a Mac. "Suddenly, something [that was] supposed to encrypt and secure [became] a doorway to hackers' ability to disable OS-level security features."

The fact that Microsoft Pluton can receive updates means it is less likely to encounter the kind of unfixable vulnerability found in T2. Apple baked the code into the chip at manufacturing time to ensure that attackers could not modify it. However, that meant Apple could not fix the flaw.

Still, there's no perfect defense against a hacker with possession of a PC. "The rule in security has always been if you have physical access, all bets are off," said Forrester Research analyst Jeff Pollard.

Microsoft also plans to centralize firmware updates through Pluton, which will likely please IT administrators.

"The firmware updates alone could bring out some cheering," Miller said.

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