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Microsoft introduces Azure Sphere to protect your IoT

CNET logo CNET 17/04/2018 Laura Hautala

Microsoft takes on IoT security with its new Azure Sphere, a tiny chip for smart devices that's also an OS and security software. © Provided by CNET Microsoft takes on IoT security with its new Azure Sphere, a tiny chip for smart devices that's also an OS and security software. Security experts have warned for years that your smart home devices are a hackable nightmare

With smart fridges, thermometers and lightbulbs designed to be convenient and easy to use, security is often an afterthought. That means hackers can have a field day accessing your personal data, or taking control of your device as part of a zombie network that takes down swathes of the internet. (That really happened.)

But there hasn't been much of a solution to all of the internet of things security woes. That's where Microsoft hopes to stake its claim with a new group of products it announced Monday, called Azure Sphere.

Azure Sphere is a tiny chip called a microcontroller that can go into smart devices. It's also an operating system that can run the device safely. And finally, it's security software that runs on the cloud, monitoring devices for hacking threats.

The announcement marks the first initiative to create a comprehensive system to lock down security on the IoT. While our computers, laptops and phones have security features built into their chips and operating systems -- not to mention software available that can help keep hackers at bay --  that's not the case for the vast majority of smart devices.

This might sound like a lot of fuss for your internet-connected security camera. Microsoft President Brad Smith said at an event announcing the platform that that's the point. If cameras can be used to attack the internet, like happened in the Mirai attack in 2016, nothing is too small to secure.

"In a world where anything can be disrupted, everything needs to be protected," Smith said.

The announcement gives Microsoft a unique position in the internet of things market. While it's already competing in the marketplace by licensing its Cortana personal assistant to smart speaker makers, Azure Sphere gives the company a reason to get its technology into billions of devices sold by other companies.

Rather than manufacturing the chips itself, the company is working with chipmaker MediaTek to get its microcontrollers to market. Microsoft will certify that the chips are made to its standards, and Microsoft partner managing director Galen Hunt said in the press release announcing the new product that the chips will be available "at volume" this summer. 

That's a key part of Azure Sphere, Hunt said, because the chip "functions as the brain of the device, hosting the compute, storage, memory, and an operating system right on the device."

Microsoft didn't announce any product partnerships Monday, which means we don't know yet which internet connected devices will contain its new technology. Two companies did say they found the technology promising as part of Microsoft's announcement: refrigerator maker SubZero and consumer appliance manufacturer Glen Dimplex.

"The work Microsoft is doing with Azure Sphere uniquely addresses the security challenges of the connected microcontrollers shipping in billions of devices every year," said Glen Dimplex deputy chairman Neil Naughton. "We look forward to integrating Azure Sphere into our product lines later this year."

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