AMD's New Processors Make Windows More Secure

Batten down the hatches

Key Takeaways

  • AMD Ryzen 6000 are the first processors to include the Pluton security chip designed by Microsoft.
  • Unlike Trusted Platform Module, Pluton isn't kept separate from the CPU, making it virtually impervious to attacks.
  • The first PCs to incorporate Microsoft's Pluton security chip will be available from Lenovo in May 2022.
Hologram of security padlock operating on the electronic circuit CPU.

Yuichiro Chino / Getty Images

Innovative hackers are always developing new techniques and malware to steal sensitive information like account credentials. Thankfully, security defenders are just as adept at devising new protection mechanisms. 

One of the latest attempts at outfoxing hackers has arrived in the form of a first-of-its-kind security chip from Microsoft, called Pluton. It's included in the AMD Ryzen 6000 processors, which power the Lenovo ThinkPad Z series laptops unveiled at CES 2022.

"It is designed to store sensitive information securely in your computer, like passwords and biometrics, so transactions can occur without the threat of being compromised by a threat actor," Morey Haber, chief security officer at BeyondTrust, explained to Lifewire over email.

Home Safe

Microsoft developed Pluton in collaboration with Intel, AMD, and Qualcomm, not only to get innovative new hardware to share security responsibility with the software but to do so in a manner as to quash any physical break-in attempts. 

Haber explained Pluton using an interesting analogy, comparing the security chip to a home safe users can use to store sensitive documents and precious belongings. 

"It is designed to store sensitive information securely in your computer, like passwords and biometrics..."

Tutoring us about the benefits of Pluton, Haber said the chip is designed to make many modern techniques for hacking inert and help secure information in our computers from theft. What’s even more interesting is that the chip can resist all kinds of intrusions, so much so that it can safeguard the information entrusted to it even if the malicious attackers have full physical possession of the PC.

Microsoft has used similar protections to secure the Xbox One against attacks, wherein owners would pry them open and tinker with the hardware to bypass its security protections for malicious purposes, such as running unauthorized games.

Digital Moat

Microsoft has developed Pluton with the same design principles in order to secure computers against malicious physical hacks designed to steal cryptographic keys or install malware to facilitate such unlawful activity.

"The Microsoft Pluton is a security processor, pioneered in Xbox and Azure Sphere, designed to store sensitive data, like encryption keys, securely within the Pluton hardware, which is integrated into the die of a device’s CPU and is therefore more difficult for attackers to access, even if they have physical possession of a device. This design helps ensure that emerging attack techniques cannot access key material," David Weston, Director of Enterprise and OS Security at Microsoft, wrote in the Windows Experience Blog.

Nasser Fattah, North America Steering Committee Chair at Shared Assessments, told Lifewire in an email that in the real world, the Pluton security chip will securely store user and system sensitive information users can’t afford to lose.

"For example, securely storing our Windows Hello biometrics, like our fingerprint matching and facial recognition, as well as sensitive system information, like our Windows Bitlocker encryption key that safeguards the confidentiality of the information stored on our local drive in the event of physical theft," said Fattah. 

Secure By Design

Pluton isn’t the first time vendors have called upon hardware to secure computers, a task that’s often entrusted to software.

The most popular incarnation of a hardware security silicon is the Trusted Platform Module (TPM) which stores sensitive information in a dedicated chip kept separate from the CPU.  

illustration of a computer processor on a motherboard

zf L / Getty Images

While TPM is still pretty secure, security researchers have demonstrated mechanisms to break into the connection between the TPM chip and the CPU when they physically possess a computer. One such attack, demonstrated in July 2021, took less than 30 minutes to extract the BitLocker key from a Lenovo laptop, which in addition to TPM, also used full-disk encryption, password-protected BIOS settings, and UEFI SecureBoot. 

Fattah explained Pluton is designed to fix such an attack mechanism since it's integrated directly into the CPU, storing the secrets in a walled garden that is completely isolated from other system components. 

Hailing Pluton as a "next-generation step" in allowing the end-user to secure sensitive information themselves, Weston notes the AMD Ryzen 6000 is just the start. 

"Look for updates from Microsoft and our partners in the future around expanded hardware availability of Pluton," Weston teased.

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