Lost your laptop full of company secrets? No problem: A prototype PCMCIA card developed by Bell Labs for laptops can lock that data down as soon as you've reported it lost or stolen, and throw away the keys.
Alcatel-Lucent Ventures is incubating and testing the new technology, called Project Evros, a card with its own 3G modem, hardened Unix operating system, battery, memory, processor, and VPN software on board for linking it to the laptop. It acts as an "always-on" computer within the laptop so IT managers can track, secure, update, patch, and back up laptops from afar even if they are powered off. It can also let IT locate a lost or stolen laptop via a built-in GPS on the card.
But Dimitri Stiliadis, chief of architecture for Project Evros at Alcatel-Lucent Ventures, says the goal of the mobile project wasn't just about the laptop theft epidemic. "It's more about device management and remote control to handle the increasing population of laptops" in enterprises, he says. "It's for patch management, backups, configuration managements, end-point security, and for [tracking and protecting] lost and stolen laptops."
So if an IT manager wants to patch laptops after-hours, he or she can do so automatically via the card. "The patches get pushed to the card and when the laptop comes alive, the patch is applied immediately," he says.
Still, Project Evros' security features are the most compelling in this day of patch management woes and slippery laptops.
"Project Evros does tackle a lot of the mobile security and device management issues that are plaguing enterprises that have a large mobile workforce," says Sandra Palumbo, program manager for enterprise IT and communications services at The Yankee Group. Palumbo says that the card's separate power source and connectivity to the enterprise network prevents some of the pitfalls of mobile computing, "like what to do when mobile employees don't connect to the corporate LAN long enough to get patches and other updates."
The PCMCIA card communicates with the enterprise via an IPSec VPN, and IT controls the security policies that reside on the laptop. "It's using two-factor authentication," says Dor Skuler, general manager for the Evros venture.
And if a thief yanks the Evros card out of the laptop, it renders the machine inoperable. "It's basically an ignition key for the laptop... You cannot use the computer without the card."
But a user has to report the laptop as lost or stolen before IT can remotely delete the data and keys on the card. A thief would have to break the encryption algorithm and session key to get to the data, though. If the laptop is recovered, meanwhile, you can retrieve the key and access the data once again.
The nonprofit Visiting Nurse Association of Northern N.J. will begin testing Project Evros cards sometime in the next week or so, says Michael Landsittel, manager of information technology for the association. "I feel we still have a lot of room for improvement in security." The ability to lockdown the laptops of its home health nurses and staff is attractive to Landsittel, although he says he hopes he never has to.
"We're going to leverage this for patch management, which we currently do manually here," Landsittel says. "This will take a load off of us."
Project Evros is still only a prototype, and Alcatel-Lucent Ventures won't give too much detail as of yet on its final product form, nor just how it will be distributed and marketed. But the plan is for release sometime this year, and the company also is considering this technology for PDA devices as well, says Alcatel-Lucent's Skuler. While cost will be an important consideration for enterprise buyers, developers aren't releasing any pricing information at the moment.
Alcatel-Lucent has built APIs for third-party applications to integrate with the Project Evros platform, which already works with Microsoft's SMS. The company is currently working with PatchLink to integrate with its patch management software, as well as with other patch management, backup, and configuration management application developers.
So why didn't anyone think of this extra layer of security and management for laptops before? "That's a question we've been asking ourselves," Stiliadis says. "I think we had reached the point when several forces had come together: Enterprises had more laptops in the field; wireless and broadband data networks were becoming more available, with more capacity and coverage; and prices were coming down."
Kelly Jackson Higgins, Senior Editor, Dark Reading