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Apple was the first with the Secure Enclave, but now everyone has a security chip

Apple announcing the A12 Bionic
Apple announcing the A12 Bionic (Image credit: iMore)

What you need to know

  • Apple's Secure Enclave was the first of its kind.
  • But now Android phone makers have caught up.
  • Many get the feature for free as part of the SoC they use.

Apple was the first out of the gate with a hardware security chip in the form of the Secure Enclave with the arrival of iPhone 5S. But now it seems everyone has one, with most Android phone makers also boasting a similar feature.

Apple's Secure Enclave houses information that needs to remain separate from the rest of the system in order to avoid it being compromised. Touch ID, Face ID, and passcode data are just some examples.

According to a new Counterpoint Research report, most Android phone makers now have their own alternative to the Secure Enclave.

Sales of smartphones with embedded hardware security (secure smartphones) grew 39% year-on-year (YoY) in 2019, according to the latest research from Counterpoint's IoT Security Service. Systems based on a secure element accounted for 89% of shipments, while those with a PUF represented 10% of secure smartphone sales in 2019.

Counterpoint Research Embedded Security Data

Counterpoint Research Embedded Security Data (Image credit: Counterpoint Research)

However, the same report also noted that both Samsung and Google approach things a little differently. Although the result is still a dedicated solution.

Samsung implements a physically unclonable function (PUF), that serves as a unique identifier in the Exynos 9820 and 9825. Where Google takes a different approach by implementing a TPM (Trust Platform Module), a miniature version of a hardware security module (HSM) soldered into the PCBs of its Pixel series smartphones.

But while Apple's competition does now have something similar to the Secure Enclave, most of them haven't had to do any work to get it. As the report notes, most of them get the feature for free as part of the System on Chip (SoC) they happen to use. Such as Qualcomm's 8xx series.

The secure element is a coprocessor within the SoC that assures tamper-resistance and is capable of securely hosting applications. From the iPhone 5s onwards, Apple has been embedding a secure enclave (eSE) provided by the Global Platform. The communication within the secure enclave and application processor is isolated, which secures data from malware attacks. Huawei also implemented an integrated secure element (inSE) on its SoCs, the HiSilicon Kirin 960, 970, 980, 990, and 710. Qualcomm has adopted the secure element as a secure processing unit (SPU) in the Snapdragon 845, 855, and 855+, which enables brands like Xiaomi, OnePlus, Oppo, Vivo, LG, Sony, Samsung, and Google to implement hardware embedded security in its premium smartphones.

Oliver Haslam
Contributor

Oliver Haslam has written about Apple and the wider technology business for more than a decade with bylines on How-To Geek, PC Mag, iDownloadBlog, and many more. He has also been published in print for Macworld, including cover stories. At iMore, Oliver is involved in daily news coverage and, not being short of opinions, has been known to 'explain' those thoughts in more detail, too.

Having grown up using PCs and spending far too much money on graphics card and flashy RAM, Oliver switched to the Mac with a G5 iMac and hasn't looked back. Since then he's seen the growth of the smartphone world, backed by iPhone, and new product categories come and go. Current expertise includes iOS, macOS, streaming services, and pretty much anything that has a battery or plugs into a wall. Oliver also covers mobile gaming for iMore, with Apple Arcade a particular focus. He's been gaming since the Atari 2600 days and still struggles to comprehend the fact he can play console quality titles on his pocket computer.