Feeds

Silicon backdoor: not an international crisis

Researcher’s second lesson: how to troll the entire Internet

  • alert
  • submit to reddit

Using blade systems to cut costs and sharpen efficiencies

Is it something to do with Slavic names? The Register is quite accustomed to Eugene Kaspersky’s astonishing ability to escalate every threat into a “cybergeddon”; now Cambridge researcher Sergei Skorobogatov seems to have taken his lessons to heart.

Let’s pick up the high points of Skorobogatov’s story again: (1) a ‘military grade’ FPGA that is (2) manufactured in China (3) has a backdoor. With a combination like that, the headlines are guaranteed – even if the threat is nebulous.

First, as Errata Security points out, “military grade” does not have the “wow, spook stuff!” meaning that it’s been given in too many outlets. Here is Actel’s outline of specifications for the ProASIC3 series of chips, including the mil-spec device. The first table shows the difference between different devices in the series; the A3P1000 is the “military” version – which means that it has been tested to military temperature requirements.

“Military” doesn’t mean “this is a chip designed to protect military secrets.” It means “if you put this chip into a product it can stand temperatures from -55°c to 125°C.”

Errata Security also points out that “manufactured in China” does not mean “the Chinese tampered with the design to insert the backdoor”. Following the old rule that a stuff-up is more likely than a conspiracy, Errata suggests that the backdoor was probably an intentional feature that the designers forgot to disable when they committed the FPGA’s design to manufacture.

It’s also important to remember that even if the backdoor exists, and even if it’s malicious, it’s not a very useful backdoor. For example, it’s not likely to enable a remote attack allowing Boeing 787 Dreamliners to drop out of the sky.

FPGAs are attacked not by sending a packet over the Internet with the evil bit set. To interfere with the FPGA, you need physical access to the device, and the appropriate equipment and software to program it.

That puts into context another observation made by Errata Security: the purpose of the encryption that Skorobogatov has cracked. The encryption exists not to protect communication between the device and the Big Bad Internet (more on this in a second) – it exists to protect the design placed on the chip. In other words, the threat is not that “military secrets will be stolen”, it’s that your design (and therefore your intellectual property) will be copied. At worst, if that particular chip was in something like a military drone, and if it were captured by an enemy, and if they were able to reproduce the attack – then the design might yield useful information about the drone’s design.

There is, of course, a scenario in which the FPGA might communicate with the Internet: the design implemented on the chip might be a communications stack. Even in that case, the purely internal encryption, designed to protect the gate designs on the chip, has nothing to do with its relationship to the outside world.

Should sensitive users of the chip be worried? Certainly. They want their designs protected. There’s even a discernable risk to someone like Boeing, since it’s feasible that someone with legitimate access to FPGAs might be persuaded or forced to reprogram them with malicious code, or steal Boeing’s code.

For the rest of us, our time would be better spent defending ourselves against the thousands of threats that affect our security. ®

Boost IT visibility and business value

More from The Register

next story
Secure microkernel that uses maths to be 'bug free' goes open source
Hacker-repelling, drone-protecting code will soon be yours to tweak as you see fit
How long is too long to wait for a security fix?
Synology finally patches OpenSSL bugs in Trevor's NAS
Roll out the welcome mat to hackers and crackers
Security chap pens guide to bug bounty programs that won't fail like Yahoo!'s
Israel's Iron Dome missile tech stolen by Chinese hackers
Corporate raiders Comment Crew fingered for attacks
HIDDEN packet sniffer spy tech in MILLIONS of iPhones, iPads – expert
Don't panic though – Apple's backdoor is not wide open to all, guru tells us
Researcher sat on critical IE bugs for THREE YEARS
VUPEN waited for Pwn2Own cash while IE's sandbox leaked
Four fake Google haxbots hit YOUR WEBSITE every day
Goog the perfect ruse to slip into SEO orfice
prev story

Whitepapers

Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
Consolidation: The Foundation for IT Business Transformation
In this whitepaper learn how effective consolidation of IT and business resources can enable multiple, meaningful business benefits.
Application security programs and practises
Follow a few strategies and your organization can gain the full benefits of open source and the cloud without compromising the security of your applications.
How modern custom applications can spur business growth
Learn how to create, deploy and manage custom applications without consuming or expanding the need for scarce, expensive IT resources.
Securing Web Applications Made Simple and Scalable
Learn how automated security testing can provide a simple and scalable way to protect your web applications.