Intel is looking to set a new standard for notebook security with a protocol that requires user authentication before the computer even boots up.

Since March, the company has been quietly trying to persuade hardware and software vendors to adopt its Intel Protected Access Architecture - a blueprint for pre-boot user authentication capabilities on mobile PCs.

Notebooks supporting the capability will require users to identify themselves via biometric devices such as fingerprint scanners before the operating system is loaded.

Most current authentication procedures are done only after the boot process is completed and the operating system is loaded.

Preventing the operating system from loading means unauthorised users are effectively shut out of the system, making a stolen notebook "as valuable as a brick" to thieves, said Robert Fan, a platform marketing manager at Intel.

Intel's specification defines the interface and method that vendors of BIOS software - software that helps a machine's hardware communicate with the operating system - and vendors of biometric security devices can use to support this capability, said Naveen Musinipally, a product manager at Intel.

The first notebooks featuring the capability should become available early next year, Musinipally said.

Intel will provide development kits, reference designs and technical information to help vendors enable the technology.

Notebooks that support the capability will require users to authenticate themselves once the processor, chip set, memory and other platform components have been initialised.

Users can authenticate themselves using fingerprint scanners, smart cards or even standard passwords. The information input via such means is compared against data stored in a separate protected memory location on the computer.

Intel's effort comes at a time when notebook theft is posing a growing security problem. Alarm bells started ringing earlier this year when a senior government official mislaid is notebook PC containing crucial data in the back of a London cab.