These days, something that fits in your palm could be a smartphone, a phablet, an MP3 player, a media streaming device, etc. What about an actual desktop mini PC? Well that sure sounds impressive, and it is. A miniature, flying saucer-shaped computer, called ORWL, from a company called Design Shift, is designed with the inspiration of George Orwell in mind. The conception of “Big Brother”, and the unlimited amounts of time we spend online these days is surely a concern for many. Thus, the making of ORWL was aimed at being the “first physically secure computer”. That’s a large job and title to live up to, considering the many devices popping up that ensure privacy and security encryption. In the very least, however, ORWL is a creation spawned from some seriously smart brains, hence the lengths the company has gone to ensure privacy in its use.
To make such a claim, as the first physically secure computer, means we need to know what sets it apart from others. There’s an existing assortment of small desktops to choose from, like the $500 Mac Mini, Acer Chromebox, and HP Pavilion Mini, which all use the same notion. Since ORWL ($699) claims to be something not of just small size but also high security, it’s important to know it’s two winning features have to be its intricate internal encryption, as well as its “tamper proof” physical security layer.
The device has two secure microcontrollers (MCUs), which are used to store and provoke the drive’s cryptographic key. Design Shift says this security microcontroller (Maxim’s MAX32550), plus an authentication key fob (STMicroelectrons’ ST54D, both reside inside the motherboard and start up as soon as the device boots up. Their jobs include- ensuring that the computer system is protected, particularly the self-encrypted SSD, tamper-proof active mesh (where the system protects against tampering by protecting the CPU, mainboard, and MCU), key fob authentication, out of range lockdown, and off-grid backup (these are definitely words from Design Shift, not myself).
By the way, that self-encrypted SSD that sounds so impressive, is. It automatically encrypts all of the stored data, and the one with the available key to unlock the system is able to see what’s inside, more or less. Then, by the authentification of the device’s NFC key, Bluetooth LE monitors its range. Once out of BLE range, the key fob disconnects the user, the mainboards secure MCU disables the USB ports, and the system is then in standby mode. Even power to the Intel subsystem is moved if the security key gets out of range.
If this type of security mechanism doesn’t sound failsafe, try this. On top of all of the facets of encryption thus far, ORWL even has a physical layer of security. The “active mesh”, as it’s called, encases the computer - comparable to the way ATMs and security tokens do, and made out of a material containing a printed circuit board that shatters when it’s tampered with. If one were to drill this thing open, pry it open, or what have you, the shattering would trigger the MCU to delete ORWL’s encryption key and data.
On an ending note, the ORWL team is working on a development kit that should be released soon, so users can custom build their own ORWL firmware. Back at the end of 2015, the company began asking for crowdfunding contributions to get some extra elbow grease in while developing the device, specifically with the idea in mind to sell versions of ORWL without any firmware. The idea, which costs a lot of money, meant the open-source firmware could grant anyone the use of the custom MCU. Inquiring about the miniature desktop’s status today is as easy as hitting up Design Shift’s Kickstarter page, where you’ll find that the goal of a whopping $175,000 was not nearly met. That doesn’t mean much for the overall idea that is in place. At some point, kind of like Global Warming, consumers will “get it” when it comes to the state of their personal data.
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