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Hardware devices are far from a panacea for information security problems but users are continuing to place too much faith in marketing claims to the contrary, the Black Hat conference was told this week.

Technology has moved on but hardware devices are far from totally secure. "Most, if not all, hardware solutions are open to attack," Joe Grand, a security consultant at Grand Idea Studio, told delegates to the Black Hat conference in Amsterdam on Thursday. "Blindly trusting hardware leads to a false sense of security. Hardware is not voodoo."

Grand outlined a variety of attacks including eavesdropping, interrupting the operation of a hardware security product, using undocumented features or invasive tampering. The motives of such attacks can vary from IP theft, getting services without paying or forging a user's identity to gain access to a system.

Network appliances, mobile devices, RFID tokens and access control devices are among the many hardware products potentially at risk. For example, biometric systems are reckoned to be more secure than systems that use passwords, but physical characteristics are hard to keep secret. Fingers can be lifted from keyboards or voices can be recorded. The storage of biometric characteristics on back-end systems also sets up avenues of attack.

History shows authentication tokens might be attacked given physical access to hardware. The storage of data on "easily accessible, unprotected" serial EEPROM allowed attackers to gain full access to a USB hardware tokens by rewriting a user PIN with a default PIN, according to a (paper) from @stake. The paper, published in 2000, details invassive attacks on hardware token from Aladdin and Rainbow Technologies.

Aladdin has been in touch to say the attacks detailed in this paper are against a mothballed, prototype product, the eToken R1 (AKA eToken, 3.3.3.x). It says its current eToken range is immune from such attacks.

Other researchers this year demonstrated how to exploit cryptographic weaknesses to attack the RFID tags used in vehicle immobilisers and the Mobil SpeedPass payment system. SSL cryptographic accelerators are also potentially hackable, as demonstrated by a recently documented attack against Intel's NetStructure 7110 devices. Wireless Access Points based on Vlinux, such as the Dell TrueMobile 1184, can also be hacked.

Other attacks create a possible mechanism to lift passwords from Cisco routers or Palm OS devices. Even ATM systems are not invulnerable, as demonstrated Cambridge University research illustrates.

Grand said that these types of problems exist because many hardware engineers are not familiar with security. A lack of anti-tamper mechanisms, use of publicly-available reference designs and (most seriously) improper protection of external memory all create problems. Security through obscurity is still widely practiced in hardware design but hiding something does not make the problem go away, Grand said.

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