EU diminishes Intel's security on a chip plans

Intel’s plans to stick security instructions onto its chips have been vetoed by the EU.

Last year Intel spent a fortune on McAfee so that it could shove its Anti Virus technology onto its chips. The Commission said that while it would allow the takeover to happen, it was concerned that the deal would end up excluding competing security software from operating with Intel processors. As part of the deal; Intel agreed to make sure its products would continue to work with rival software.

However the EU have told Intel that it has to keep its computer chipsets “open” to rivals’ anti-virus software.

The EU said that the decision is a victory for consumers – however the DailyTelegraph has waded into the decision and says that it it’s terrible news as no one likes paying for anti virus software and the EU’s meddling means that tens of millions of computers in Europe – especially in homes and small businesses will remain totally unprotected.

“What the free market was moving towards, and what the EU is preventing, was for PC motherboards to have security software built in, so that protection begins even before Microsoft Windows starts to load,” the Telegraph thundered.

Unfortunately that was never the case. When Chipzilla bought McAfee everyone in the industry said what the heck is it smoking?

There are some major problems with sticking an AV system onto a chip. The Daily Telegraph seems to think that the chip will be able to sniff your system for viruses before it moves to the operating system. However unless a chip develops the power of telepathy, that’s not going to happen,  as the virus would not actually be activated at that point.

It could search the hard-drive as part of the boot up to see if any malware is on board, but this would take too long. So the Telegraph’s Utopian vision is pants.

Any Intel chip-based AV system would have to work while the operating system is running. But it can get to the machine level it will be very effective which means that Intel’s AV security could be better than others on the market. This would knock out any AV security company which tries to run on Intel chips, which as the EU points out is anticompetitive to the security industry. Intel is using its huge power as a chipmaker to knock rivals out of another business which it will then control.

The other problem which the Daily Telegraph has not contemplated is that the security industry is fairly flexible. It is easy to update your AV software. If it is put onto a chip that means that it will have to be regularly updated which is a little more risky than a straight software change. While software could make this easy, it is not as simple as the current method.

Next there is the small matter that Chipzilla’s anti virus system will become so important that disabling it will become the major focus of any hacker.

By sticking an AV on the chip you have created a basket where you have shoved all your eggs. While you might surround your basket with a big castle wall, you have also stuck a big target in front of it. If you circumvent that wall then you have access to an awful lot of power over the computer.

So generally the EU is right. It is a good thing for the consumer that Intel is not allowed to stick its own flavour of AV onto its chips.

If there is any advantage to this method of security, it should be that Intel allows all AV suppliers to stick their code onto chips perhaps based around some kind of industry standard.

Still what is interesting about the EU ruling is that Intel agreed to keep its chips open. This means it probably never planned to stick McAfee software on the chip in the first place which still leaves us wondering why Chipzilla bought it.