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Intel puts its fingerprints on McAfee, but trouble could loom

31 Oct 2012

V3 reporter Shaun NicholsWhen McAfee kicked off the 2012 edition of its annual Focus customer conference in Las Vegas, one of the prevailing themes was integration.

The security firm talked up integration with its partners, integration with its peers in the security space, and integration with its parent company, chipmaker extraordinaire Intel.

At the heart of the integration talk was a tie-up with Intel that would see McAfee offering security products which sit directly on the chip, spotting problems before the operating system itself even loads.

Such technology could be a valuable tool in combatting cybercrime. As new advanced persistent threats (APTs) are using increasingly sophisticated methods to infect users and avoid conventional security tools, vendors are looking for new ways to protect PCs.

Unfortunately for Intel, the concept also presents plenty of potential dangers which could force it to walk a tightrope between helping its subsidiary thrive in the ultra-competitive security space and staying out of the crosshairs of anti-trust officials.

It's hard to argue on-chip protections would not be welcomed in the security space. With highly-complex malware looking to use rootkit methods which attack PCs at the kernel level and lower, security tools need to likewise move beyond the OS level.

Since the deal between the two companies was first announced, McAfee has talked up the idea of building security into the hardware level. Though the company has yet to disclose any details about how these on-chip protections would operate, executives described methods for blocking attacks which attempt to disrupt or modify start-up protocols.

Getting protections on chips would be a major step forward for anti-malware technology and being the first to offer such protections could prove a huge advantage for McAfee in the larger IT security market.

Unfortunately, that advantage for McAfee could bring with it legal headaches for its parent company.

Intel has long maintained that it would operate McAfee as an independent entity and would not show favouritism when dealing with other firms. But the bottom line is that the chipmaker owns McAfee and has a vested interest in seeing the company do well.

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Shaun Nichols
About

Shaun Nichols is the US correspondent for V3.co.uk. He has been with the company since 2006, originally joining as a news intern at the site's San Francisco offices.

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