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Hardware-Level Content Protection Headed For More Gadgets

Pressure from Hollywood, record companies and other content providers is putting the heat on the makers of PCs, music players and other handheld devices.
Movies, music and other digital content downloaded from the Web will be protected from illegal copying through a combination of software and specialty chips built into the circuit board of a PC, portable media player, or other consumer electronics, a research firm said this week.

Hardware-based security that works in conjunction with software is not new, and has been available for years in the PC environment for business-class devices, such as those that handle credit-card transactions. What is new, however, is how the technology is expected to eventually be adapted for the consumer market, due to pressure from Hollywood studios, record companies and other content providers.

"In the consumer electronics world, all the protection is through software-based approaches," Steve Wilson, analyst for ABI Research and author of the report "Hardware Security in the Consumer Electronics Market," told InformationWeek on Thursday. "All of those approaches have been hacked, and if you search the Internet, you can find tools and programs to break (the protections)."

The march toward hardware security in consumer electronics has already started with the mobile phone, which in some Asian countries is being used to charge purchases. Companies building processors today for protecting handset data include Texas Instruments, Motorola and ARM, Wilson said. Companies building embedded security chips for business machines include Atmel, Broadcom, and Infineon Technologies.

All these companies, along with the biggest chipmaker Intel, are capable of moving to the consumer electronics market with hardware for copyright protection, Wilson said. For the next few years, however, handsets are expected to provide the platform for testing and developing the technology. "Handsets will be the proving ground," Wilson said.

"The handset market is just now starting to embrace these new hardware security features," he said. "The next wave will be consumer electronic devices." By 2013, more than 60 million CE devices will ship with hardware security, ABI predicted. That number is from zero today, not counting set-top boxes.

Content security in the future will use chips for storing and generating electronic keys used to encrypt data when it goes into a hard drive, and decrypting it when it's retrieved. Software, such as digital rights management technology, would still be used in setting the rules for use, such as how many different machines the content can be played, or how many times it can be copied.

Storing and generating keys within hardware would make them inaccessible to hackers, who today routinely find, and sometimes publish on the Web, keys stored in software. Hackers, for example, have said they are close to cracking the copy-protection software in high-definition movie DVDs.

The hacker threat will eventually make hardware security ubiquitous, Wilson said. "It'll be included in systems because it's the right way to secure the platform."