PCs coming out this year with Microsoft’s integrated Pluton security chip won’t be locked down to Windows 11, and users will have the option to turn off the feature completely as well as install, say, Linux as normal, we understand.
The first Windows 11 PCs with Pluton built-in were shown at CES earlier this month. Major PC chip houses – think Intel, AMD, and Qualcomm – are said to be embedding Pluton inside their just-launched or upcoming microprocessors.
Pluton can act as a Trusted Platform Module (TPM) or as a non-TPM security coprocessor. It’s a way for Microsoft to specify exactly how it wants a TPM component to be present in microprocessors so that Windows 11 can use the hardware as a root-of-trust and secure its stuff. Windows 11 officially requires TPM 2.0 support in PC chipsets, though as you all know there are workarounds and exceptions.
Microsoft’s invasion at the hardware level has some users – especially those in the open-source community – on high alert. The concern relates to the chip being a means to lock equipment exclusively to Windows 11, shutting out other operating systems, such as Linux and the BSDs.
We provide the ability for a user to enable or disable Pluton based on their preferences in our reference BIOS
AMD integrated Microsoft’s Pluton design into its Ryzen 6000 chips, which were just introduced at CES. AMD said its goal is to bring better security to Windows PCs, and users can disable Pluton on machines that follow AMD’s reference firmware.
“AMD respects user choice and, as is typical with many other security technologies, we provide the ability for a user to enable or disable Pluton based on their preferences in our reference BIOS,” an AMD spokeswoman told The Register.
Pluton does not restrict Linux installation, and is a security component for Windows deployments, the spokeswoman added.
“AMD Ryzen 6000 Series processors support Linux. AMD has closely collaborated with Canonical (Ubuntu) and Red Hat to certify and optimize OEM designs with their operating systems,” she said.
Lenovo at CES announced ThinkPads powered by the aforementioned AMD Ryzen chips, and these laptops will ship without Pluton turned on.
“Pluton will be disabled by default on 2022 Lenovo ThinkPad platforms. Specifically the Z13, Z16, T14, T16, T14s, P16s and X13 using AMD 6000-series processors. Customers will have the ability to enable Pluton themselves,” a Lenovo spokesperson told The Register.
An Intel spokesman told The Register its Alder Lake PC processors will run Linux, and that its chips already include a Pluton-equivalent called Intel Platform Trust Technology. This is a TPM 2.0 compatible component that, for instance, helps protect against certain classes of physical attacks.
Pluton is designed for Windows, and using it with Linux “is currently an unsupported scenario,” a Microsoft spokesperson told The Register.
“Pluton is a hardware security technology that could be used by various OS components similar to how OS code can choose to use the TPM. Linux already has support for TPMs today, however Microsoft’s current focus is ensuring an optimal experience for Windows 11,” the IT giant’s PR team explained in an email.
To be sure, Apple and Google have homegrown security processors in their own devices. Microsoft largely collaborates with chip makers to tune processors for Windows, though Pluton marks a milestone in Microsoft’s growing efforts to develop custom silicon. In this case, getting a TPM-like unit within microprocessors.
It’s up to PC makers to make this opt in or opt out
Pluton can act as a TPM baked onto the processor die, where it can secure the storage of keys and other sensitive information, and check the integrity of the running Windows system, while keeping its communication signals with the main CPU cores away from prying eyes and private within the same processor package. In other words, the integration should prevent TPM-CPU bus traffic from being physically sniffed. Or rather, that’s the sales pitch.
Pluton for PCs evolved from security mechanisms in the Xbox console family and the Azure Sphere IoT platform. Microsoft has said Pluton provides “chip to cloud” security, with firmware updates coming through Windows Update.
“Pluton for Windows computers will be integrated with the Windows Update process in the same way that the Azure Sphere Security Service connects to IoT devices,” Microsoft said in a blog entry describing the tech.
Microsoft has demonstrated that Pluton could be built into IoT systems based on Linux.
But the Xbox roots of Pluton has netizens worried about it being some kind of DRM or copy protection tool. Microsoft has argued Pluton is more of a building block to address the long-standing problem of securing Windows PCs from bad actors.
PC makers can choose to ship computers with Pluton turned off, and the technology does not verify the signature of bootloaders, Microsoft PR said. The security processor can be configured to act as a TPM, or used in a non-TPM scenario, or disabled.
Microsoft told The Register it is interested in helping customers secure their open-source environments, giving the example of a proposal and shared code for a new Linux Security Module to authorize code execution by policy. ®