Intel divests McAfee after rough marriage, will now secure hardware

Intel will focus on putting security hooks in hardware and components

Intel's finally washing its hands of McAfee after seven up and down years, which included a lawsuit last year from John McAfee, after whom the company is named.

The chip maker has divested its majority holdings in McAfee to investment firm TPG for US$3.1 billion.

McAfee will now again become a standalone security company, but Intel will retain a minority 49 percent stake. The chip maker will focus internal operations on hardware-level security.

For Intel, dumping majority ownership in McAfee amounts to a loss. It spent $7.68 billion to acquire McAfee in 2010, which was a head-scratcher at the time. Intel's McAfee acquisition will stand as one of the company's worst acquisitions.

The chip maker had the right idea when it acquired McAfee -- to add layers of security to hardware and components. Intel embedded McAfee technology in firmware at the PC and server chip level, and developed security management tools.

McAfee technology was also used in hardware using real-time operating systems. However, McAfee had little ties to Intel's core hardware strategy.

Intel was running a parallel hardware security strategy that had little to no ties to McAfee, which was renamed Intel Security. The chip maker was developing trusted boot systems and partnering with other companies on server security and secure payments.

The McAfee acquisition gave Intel deep insight into the security arena, said Doug Fisher, senior vice president and general manager of the Software and Services Group at Intel.

Separating the companies will put McAfee in a better position to grow in the software area, which is its core competency, Fisher said. It also leaves Intel in a better position to grow in hardware-level security at the chip and firmware levels, he added.

Intel's focus will be on putting instructions and hooks on its silicon to protect users. It is already providing secure areas in its chips where user authentication data can be stored. For example, it's SGX (Software Guard Extensions) feature can authenticate users so content providers can stream 4K video to authorized PCs. It wants to use similar features to ensure secure payments from PCs.

Security is also a big concern in IoT devices, but Intel will rely on partnerships. Intel is a member of Open Connectivity Foundation, and will work with industry partners to develop IoTivity protocols, which aim for secure connectivity between devices with multiple OSes and wireless technologies.

Intel also is expanding into self-driving cars, where security is a big consideration. Hacking into the software controls of a self-driving car could be disastrous, and Intel is putting supercomputers in vehicles that will need to be secured.

Another area of focus is the ability to securely deliver over-the-air updates to self driving cars, Fisher said.

Intel will deliver a reference architecture to harden edge devices and gateways for automobile security. There will also be automobile security standards that could protect self-driving cars from hacks, Fisher said.

VR is still in its infancy, and so are the security considerations. In virtual worlds, security could be much like it is in the real world, where certain virtual areas are cordoned off from unauthorized users. Also, Intel wants to cut the cord from VR headsets with secure wireless connections to PCs, Fisher said.

The fate of some products like True Key -- which allows users to log into Windows PCs via biometric authentication -- are not yet known. True Key is a competitor to Microsoft's Windows Hello. Intel will also work with Microsoft to promote Windows Hello.

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