TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: $100 Laptop May be at Security Forefront

$100 Laptop May be at Security Forefront

Brian Bergstein, AP (
Sat, 07 Oct 2006 21:43:36 -0500

By BRIAN BERGSTEIN, AP Technology Writer

The $100 laptops planned for children around the world might turn out
to be as revolutionary for their security measures as for their
low-cost economics.

The One Laptop Per Child project, a nonprofit begun at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology, aims to improve education by giving children
bright-colored, hand-cranked, wireless-enabled portable computers.
Governments are to buy the laptops -- beginning in 2007 with up to 7
million machines in Thailand, Nigeria, Brazil and Argentina -- and hand
them to kids for them to own.

The machines have garnered the most attention -- and some skepticism --
for the design elements helping to keep their price low. Among other
things, the computers will employ the free Linux operating system, flash
memory instead of a hard drive and a microprocessor that is slow by
today's standards but requires minimal power.

But programmers also have been taking advantage of the start-from-
scratch nature of the project to design security protocols that they
hope will greatly surpass those found in mass-market computers today.

The designers are still testing their approach with outside security
experts -- which is widely considered wiser than keeping such matters
secret. But already they believe the security setup could make it
unnecessary for the laptops to have anti-virus software.

Standard computer design generally lets most any program access any
file stored anywhere on the machine. That is one reason why flaws in
programs can be exploited by outsiders to steal or erase private

By contrast, the $100 laptops will force any application to run in "a
walled garden" and limit the files it can access, said Ivan Krstic, a
software architect at One Laptop Per Child focused on security.

Even if the security were to fail, Krstic believes a specialized
encryption technology will prevent the BIOS the software that
runs a computer when it is initially turned on from being
overwritten. That means the PC could not be rendered unable to boot

"It's essentially unbelievably difficult to do anything to the machine
that would cause permanent hardware failure," Krstic said.

Extensive security measures are necessary because so many of the
machines are expected to be built, making them a large target for

One particularly thorny potential problem is that the laptops can
communicate with one another in a "mesh" network, sharing data and
programming code. A computing Web site reported this week that Krstic
had described that setup to the ToorCon security conference as "very

But he contended to The Associated Press that the comment was taken
out of context.

"We have code-sharing in the machines, which is really scary if we
were not paying attention to it," he said. "But we think we have
solutions to all of these problems."

One of the principal organizers of ToorCon, George Spillman, said
Krstic's presentation was "very well received" because the $100-laptop
designers have thought a great deal about security but "they're not
arrogant enough to believe they have everything locked down."

Spillman believes at least some of the measures Krstic described are
likely to be successful, though he cautioned: "There's always going to
be some kind of a hole somewhere."

Walter Bender, a co-founder of MIT's Media Lab who is overseeing
software and content on the $100 laptops, said children should be able
to tinker with the laptops and learn how they work. To that end, these
security measures can be turned off by the PCs' owners.

To protect against that leading to disaster, the laptops will
automatically back up their data up on a server whenever the machines
get in wireless range of the children's school. If a child loses data,
the files can be restored by bringing the laptop within wireless range
of the server.

On the Net:

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press.

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