USB Type-C to get cryptographic authentication

April 13, 2016 // 12:15 p.m.

Tags: #authentication #cryptography #stmicroelectronics #universal-serial-bus #usb #usb-30-promoter-group #usb-type-c

The USB 3.0 Promoter Group has announced that it is to add authentication to the USB Type-C standard, as a means of locking the platform down against low-quality cables and chargers that could damage devices.

Increasingly popular on mobile devices, USB Type-C offers a number of improvements over previous generations of the Universal Serial Bus. Chief among these is a redesigned connector which allows cables to be plugged in either way up, along with support for higher data throughput and heftier current - enough to keep a laptop equipped with only USB Type-C connectors, such as Apple's latest MacBook, running from the mains, in fact.

The standard has been suffering from bad press of late, however, with a Google researcher taking to Amazon to leave reviews of cables and chargers which he claims are so badly made as to lead to potential device damage - from overheating to short-circuits that leave systems dead. The USB 3.0 Promoter Group's answer? Cryptographic authentication of certified hardware, borrowing a leaf from Apple's book.

'USB is well-established as the favoured choice for connecting and charging devices,' boasted Brad Saunders, USB 3.0 Promoter Group chair, at the announcement. 'In support of the growing USB Type-C ecosystem, we anticipated the need for a solution extending the integrity of the USB interface. The new USB Type-C Authentication protocol equips product OEMs with the proper tools to defend against ‘bad’ USB cables, devices and non-compliant USB Chargers.'

The authentication technology is set to arrive in the USB Power Delivery 3.0 standard, which is otherwise unchanged from its predecessor. Using 128-bit cryptography and hardware from STMicroelectronics, USB Type-C devices will be able to query the status of connected chargers and cables - even if used only for power, rather than data, purposes - and block the use of devices not containing a valid certificate.

The system will, the Group has suggested, be flexible in its implementation. While it would certainly be possible for a hardware vendor to lock its products down against the use of any and all third-party USB Type-C devices, the system is claimed to offer advantages to end-users, too: the Group claims that individuals could toggle the status of third-party charger support on their smartphones to improve security while travelling, or that companies could set corporate policies preventing the use of third-party USB storage devices.

The Group has not yet indicated when the USB Power Delivery 3.0 and authentication standards will be implemented by its member companies in commercial products.
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