The Pixel 6 Tensor Chip’s Best Upgrade Isn’t Speed. It’s Security

Google’s new flagship Pixel 6 and 6 Pro smartphones have gotten solid reviews so far, thanks in part to the custom Tensor processor inside. Google designed the “system on a chip” in-house, giving it a similar speed and efficiency advantage that Apple enjoys with its homegrown silicon. And while there’s a lot to admire in the snappy performance and all-day battery life, Tensor offers another, less touted benefit: security.

Google’s not alone in its push to make its own smartphone chips, a trend that has built across the industry over the last several years. By controlling every layer—hardware, firmware, and software—companies don’t need to rely on the wherewithal of outside partners. As a result, the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro take some big steps like guaranteeing security updates for five years, up from an industry standard three years. (Apple typically supports old iPhones for up to seven years, but doesn’t make promises up front.)

Some of the biggest security and privacy benefits on Pixel 6 and 6 Pro are less obvious, though, and relate to how Tensor and Google’s additional Titan M2 security chip work to silo and defend sensitive data. Adding new transparency features and security protections from Android 12 on top of that, the Pixel team says its goal was to make the cost of hacking the 6 and 6 Pro as high as possible for attackers.

“It doesn’t mean there are no bugs ever, it doesn’t mean it’s impossible to hack, but the cost keeps rising,” says Dave Kleidermacher, vice president of engineering for Android security and privacy. “I think it’s becoming more and more clear that the open source strategy is the winning strategy.” 

That strategy is in contrast to Apple’s closed iOS ecosystem, which has certainly had its security struggles in recent years. Then again, Android has as well, and deals with the additional hurdle of manufacturers offering their own versions of the operating system on their hardware—meaning not all security and privacy updates make it to every device in a timely manner, if at all.

The Pixel 6 and 6 Plus have all the goods, though. Tensor is based on ARM technology, and uses that company’s isolation architecture, TrustZone, as one way to cordon off sensitive data and computations. But Tensor also offers an isolated, open source sandbox known as Private Compute Core that uses special data analysis techniques to power Android features like Live Caption and Smart Reply suggestions without storing or sharing any data with Google. The goal is to offer customized features without your identifying data ever leaving your devices. On the Pixel 6 and 6 Plus, both TrustZone and Private Compute Core run a specialized, secure, open source Google operating system known as Trusty OS.

And the secure processing fun doesn’t stop there. Tensor also has a dedicated physical area, Tensor Security Core, that communicates with the Titan M2 chip to protect vital processes like secure boot. Titan M2 is a totally separate custom chip that now has more memory, more storage, and more robust cryptography engines for things like encryption key management and biometric authentication.

www.wired.com

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