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Desktop Security System Hides Data From Interlopers

October 2002
By Robert K. Ackerman
E-mail About the Author

Cyberpirates search in vain for hard drive applications, files.

A new approach to personal computer security confounds internal thieves and external hackers by making data disappear without a trace. The new security system effectively conceals the very existence of critical files and applications from all except the authorized user.

This approach, which does not rely on encryption, allows a user to protect all manner of files ranging from data documents to applications and even operating systems. Entry codes embedded on a computer’s hard drive provide the only means of access to the concealed files. Conventional viruses, password seekers and other hacker accessories cannot detect the existence of the protected data.

Known as Phantom Total Security, or Phantom TS, the new system is manufactured by Gianus Technologies Incorporated, New York. Riccardo Bracco, president and chief operating officer of the company, describes Phantom TS as “incredibly powerful.” Surreptitiously retrieving protected information is “virtually impossible,” the system is relatively simple to use, and its protection is transparent to the type of file it secures, he declares.

Bracco emphasizes that very little training is required for users to employ Phantom TS. “They don’t have to learn how to set up a firewall; they don’t have to learn how to use encryption or understand its limitations. All they have to do is click on an icon, enter their personal codes, and they then work in an environment that will disappear on command.”

He continues that most security systems available today—firewalls, encryption or anti-viruses—tend to be application or document specific. These systems also leave the file’s existence visible to interlopers. Even if a file can be encrypted, a virus still can destroy it or it can be stolen for decryption later. Phantom TS not only protects all types of files, it denies their very existence to unauthorized users. “There is no document to be attacked,” Bracco concludes.

The key to this system’s security is that it effectively divides a computer’s hard drive into two distinct segments. One is the visible public segment that can be accessed by anyone working on the computer, and the other is the invisible, protected segment. All files that the user wants secured, whether data or applications, are housed on the protected segment. Not only do these files not appear on the desktop, but also neither a determined hacker nor a malicious virus can even ascertain their existence. Any search mechanism simply will report a large unused section of the hard drive where the protected data resides.

This stealth approach to file storage is achieved by literally shredding the protected files into small pieces. These pieces are scattered across the secure segment of the hard drive so that they are unrecognizable as part of a file. Bracco likens this process to shredding all the pages in all the volumes of an encyclopedia into small fragments. Individually, these pieces cannot be identified as part of a larger whole. The Phantom system reassembles them for the user when it is activated.

The system currently works on machines running on Windows 95/98/00/NT/Me/XP, Unix and Linux. To access the protected files, the user clicks on the Phantom icon, which initiates a request for the user to enter three codes. These codes are installed with the system, and they cannot be changed by the user. Once the user enters these access codes, the computer reboots, and the user is brought into a realm that was not visible when the machine was operating before Phantom was activated. The once-invisible side now is the primary operating system, and all of its files appear to the user.

The user then can work on any files in the protected zone as well as the public area. After work is completed and Phantom is disengaged, the secured files revert to their invisibility. “The system does not really care whether you want to protect Internet history, e-mail, videos, text or pictures of software,” Bracco notes. “Whatever program or document the user has on the invisible side disappears. In effect, it is a platform on top of which the user will choose to put whatever is used.”

Placing a file in the secure section is relatively simple. When the user is operating in the Phantom TS mode, merely dragging a file icon to the Phantom area will render it invisible when Phantom is switched off. If the machine is shut down while Phantom is still active, the next user will be able to access the invisible side at computer startup. So, to secure the data fully, Phantom must be disengaged while the computer is still on. By the same token, a user in a secure environment need not re-engage Phantom to access secure data each time the computer is switched off and on.

This system permits incorporating separate computer functions in the two segments. For example, a user may want to work in files and access the Internet in English on the public segment of the hard drive. However, the same user may choose to work with secure files in another language, such as Japanese. Different Windows operating systems could be configured in each language for the two functions, as Phantom would switch to the Japanese operating system when activated.

Even totally different operating systems could be accommodated. Computers that are capable of employing both Windows and Unix could be configured to open publicly in Windows, for example, and then switch to Unix for secure work when Phantom is activated.

Phantom TS is not installed as a conventional security appliqué. Instead of being loaded into a computer like most shrink-wrapped software, the system is installed by a licensed manufacturer either on the individual computer’s hard drive or as part of a hard drive being installed in a computer. Thus, the system is embedded in the hard drive. A customer with an existing computer can add Phantom TS by first backing up the contents of the hard drive before providing the machine to licensed Phantom installers, as its installation will wipe clean all existing files on the hard drive.

The three entry codes that are embedded in the hard drive provide considerable security in that they are not passwords, Bracco states. Outside of a government specialty agency employing a supercomputer, no one can crack the three codes to gain access to the invisible section, he says. By contrast, in a standard password-protected system, a door is placed in a wall around a document or a system, and many programs exist that can try various letter combinations until the password is discovered and the door opened.

The three Phantom codes, which comprise two eight-digit numbers and one 16-digit number, are part of the system rather than a door outside of a document, Bracco analogizes. Instead of an access point, they are more like a missing piece of an engine. “Unless you put in exactly the perfect piece, the engine will not work,” he continues. If a user—or a password-guessing program—enters the wrong code, the system will reboot in the public mode. This renders any attempt at random guessing extremely time-consuming, he notes.

These codes are assigned to the hard drive at installation. Because the numbers cannot be changed by the user, the manufacturer maintains records of the codes at its own site. Accordingly, should a user forget the codes, the manufacturer can provide backup.

Bracco notes that most of the information security violations that plague organizations tend to come from within rather than from outside. This is where firewalls cannot protect sensitive data. A significant advantage of Phantom TS is that it secures individual desktop and laptop computers against all interlopers, internal and external. Similarly, industrial espionage through theft can be foiled by keeping sensitive files on a Phantom TS-equipped computer. Even if the machine is stolen, the thieves will find it nearly impossible to access its protected files.

Most of the initial Phantom customers were overseas banks and other financial institutions, Bracco relates. As the system’s price came down to become affordable by individuals, small businesses began to incorporate it. Bracco notes that one individual medical professional has equipped all of his personal and home-office machines with the system so that his family’s personal computer use does not impinge on the professional files.

The medical community can find Phantom TS useful to meet government requirements under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) patient confidentiality laws, Bracco states. The system’s low cost and ease of use make it ideal for medical professionals, he offers. The company is expecting certification soon as a HIPAA solution for stored data.

One activity for which Phantom TS can be especially useful is the sharing of files. Many computer users often exchange files such as music, and this involves opening up the machine’s system to the rest of the world. Someone picking up a music file from another computer, for example, also might access the other user’s e-mail or financial records. Bracco points out that a user could place all public files—the music, for example—on the visible part of the computer’s hard drive. The sensitive material would be secreted on the invisible Phantom segment.

The use of Phantom TS does not preclude the employment of encryption. In fact, encrypting files before they are treated with Phantom TS increases the level of security from “virtually impossible to break” to “impossible to break—the protection is exponential,” Bracco allows. Firewalls and anti-viruses also can be used in conjunction with Phantom TS, although Bracco declares that a properly used Phantom system will provide “complete, absolute protection.” He adds that a user who is secretive about even the presence of Phantom software on the computer can disguise its icon as an innocent item such as a soccer ball.

Phantom TS comes in different versions based on user needs. The most basic version protects 2 gigabytes of data. The maximum amount of the hard drive that can be secured on the most advanced version of Phantom is 8 gigabytes. No near-future plans exist to increase this capacity, Bracco relates.

One possible future improvement focuses on the size of the file shreds. While Bracco describes the current version of Phantom as practically unbreakable, he allows that future computing advances may open the door to recognizing the existence of the fragments. So, researchers are looking at shrinking the size of the shreds to reduce the likelihood of their detection.

Bracco emphasizes that the company is not selling the security system to foreign governments. The only government that can purchase the best version of Phantom TS is the United States, he declares. Similarly, because the manufacturer maintains copies of each computer’s entry codes, the company can assist the government in accessing a Phantom-equipped computer.

Additional information on Gianus Technologies Incorporated is available on the World Wide Web at