Feeds

Military chip crypto cracked with power-analysis probe

Akin to listening to safe tumblers, but with 'leccy

Beginner's guide to SSL certificates

German computer scientists have taken advantage of the powerful number-crunching abilities of graphics chips to demonstrate a practical attack on the encryption scheme in programmable chips.

Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) chips of the type used in embedded systems belonging to the military and the aerospace industry are vulnerable to attacks based on analysing power usage during the power up sequence of the chip. The side-channel attack against the bitstream encryption mechanism used by Virtex 4 and Virtex 5 chips from Xilinx allowed researchers from the Ruhr University to extract a key used to decrypt configuration instruction files. The technique uncovered secret keys by analysing fluctuations in power consumption during the decryption process.

Only one power up sequence needs to be monitored. The subsequent number crunching took up to nine hours, in the case of the more advanced Virtex 5 chip, or six hours in the case of the earlier Virtex 4.

The approach is akin to listening to the clicks coming from the tumblers of a safe to work out a combination, but using variations in power consumption rather than sound.

Identical decryption keys are normally used in all FPGAs in a mass-produced product, so the attack opens the way up towards the creation of counterfeit kit that would be difficult to tell apart from the real thing, or even the surreptitious introduction of hardware Trojans, the researchers warn. It might be possible to introduce revised instructions that compromised devices would accept as genuine because they had been signed with the correct digital key.

Access to the key allows cloning and manipulating a design, which has been encrypted to protect the intellectual property and to prevent fraud. As a consequence, the target product faces serious threats like IP theft and more advanced attacks such as reverse engineering or the introduction of hardware Trojans.

To the best of our knowledge, this is the first successful attack against the bitstream encryption of Xilinx Virtex 4 and Virtex 5 reported in the open literature.

The attack could be carried out with off-the-shelf hardware at moderate effort.

Countermeasures against such side-channel attacks have already been applied in some high-security devices, such as smartcards for banking or pay-TV applications, but not previously though necessary for complex semiconductor circuits, such as FPGAs cracked by the German team.

More details on the research by Amir Moradi, Markus Kasper and Christof Paa from the Horst Gortz Institute for IT-Security at Ruhr University can be found in a paper, On the Portability of Side-Channel Attacks, here. ®

Choosing a cloud hosting partner with confidence

More from The Register

next story
SMASH the Bash bug! Apple and Red Hat scramble for patch batches
'Applying multiple security updates is extremely difficult'
Apple's new iPhone 6 vulnerable to last year's TouchID fingerprint hack
But unsophisticated thieves need not attempt this trick
Oracle SHELLSHOCKER - data titan lists unpatchables
Database kingpin lists 32 products that can't be patched (yet) as GNU fixes second vuln
Who.is does the Harlem Shake
Blame it on LOLing XSS terroristas
Researchers tell black hats: 'YOU'RE SOOO PREDICTABLE'
Want to register that domain? We're way ahead of you.
Stunned by Shellshock Bash bug? Patch all you can – or be punished
UK data watchdog rolls up its sleeves, polishes truncheon
Ello? ello? ello?: Facebook challenger in DDoS KNOCKOUT
Gets back up again after half an hour though
SHELLSHOCKED: Fortune 1000 outfits Bash out batches of patches
CloudPassage points to 'pervasive' threat of Bash bug
prev story

Whitepapers

Providing a secure and efficient Helpdesk
A single remote control platform for user support is be key to providing an efficient helpdesk. Retain full control over the way in which screen and keystroke data is transmitted.
Intelligent flash storage arrays
Tegile Intelligent Storage Arrays with IntelliFlash helps IT boost storage utilization and effciency while delivering unmatched storage savings and performance.
Beginner's guide to SSL certificates
De-mystify the technology involved and give you the information you need to make the best decision when considering your online security options.
Security for virtualized datacentres
Legacy security solutions are inefficient due to the architectural differences between physical and virtual environments.
Secure remote control for conventional and virtual desktops
Balancing user privacy and privileged access, in accordance with compliance frameworks and legislation. Evaluating any potential remote control choice.