The One Laptop Per Child project, a nonprofit initiative begun at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, aims to improve education by giving children bright-colored, hand-cranked, wireless-enabled portable computers. Governments are to buy the laptops–beginning in 2007 with up to 7 million machines in Thailand, Nigeria, Brazil, and Argentina–and hand them to kids for them to own.

The machines have garnered the most attention, and some skepticism, for the design elements helping to keep their price low. Among other things, the computers will employ the free Linux operating system, flash memory instead of a hard drive, and a microprocessor that is slow by today’s standards but requires minimal power.

But programmers also have been taking advantage of the start-from-scratch nature of the project to design security protocols that they hope will greatly surpass those found in mass-market computers today.

The designers are still testing their approach with outside computer security experts, which is widely considered wiser than keeping such matters secret. But already they believe the security setup could make it unnecessary for the laptops to have anti-virus software.

Standard computer design generally lets most any program access any file stored anywhere on the machine. That’s one reason flaws in programs can be exploited by outsiders to steal or erase private information.

By contrast, the $100 laptops will force any application to run in “a walled garden” and limit the files it can access, said Ivan Krstic, a software architect at One Laptop Per Child focused on security.

Even if the security were to fail, Krstic believes a specialized encryption technology will prevent the BIOS–the software that runs a computer when it is initially turned on–from being overwritten. That means the PC could not be rendered unable to boot up.

“It’s essentially unbelievably difficult to do anything to the machine that would cause permanent hardware failure,” Krstic said.