Feeds

Researchers find backdoor in milspec silicon

Claim world's first finding of secret features in chips

  • alert
  • submit to reddit

Using blade systems to cut costs and sharpen efficiencies

A pair of security researchers claim to have found a back door in a commercial field-programmable gate array (FPGA) marketed as a secure tool for military applications.

The FPGA in question is the Actel ProASIC3, a device manufacturer MicroSEMI recommends for use in “portable, consumer, industrial, communications and medical applications with commercial and industrial temperature devices,” but also comes in models boasting “specialized screening for automotive and military systems.”

Sergei Skorobogatov, a researcher at the University of Cambridge, and Christopher Woods of London's Quo Vadis Labs have released a draft paper (PDF) describing a method whereby attackers can “disable all the security on the chip, reprogram crypto and access keys, modify low-level silicon features, access unencrypted configuration bitstream or permanently damage the device.”

The pair chose the ProASIC3 for their tests because, they say, it is a very widely used device, boasts of superior security and is known to have military users. Those qualities, the pair say, made it an ideal subject for a back door hunt.

The pair used the Actel's own analysis tools and the Joint Test Action Group (JTAG) interface to analyse the silicon. That analysis yielded undocumented features, thanks to discovery of what the draft paper calls “command field and data registers.”

The pair also applied differential power analysis (DPA), a method of analysing variations in electrical activity that hint at tasks being performed in silicon, and “ Pipeline Emission Analysis (PEA)” to probe the device “in an attempt to better understand the functionality of each unknown command.” Just how PEA does so is not clear: the draft paper says PEA was developed by the “sponsor” of the research, but that entity is not revealed. Even the footnote describing the technique has been redacted so it reads “ Removed to comply with anonymity requirement for submission”.

But the paper hints PEA is a more sensitive version of DPA, describing it as follows:

“The outstanding sensitivity of the PEA is owed to many factors. One of which is the bandwidth of the analysed signal, which for DPA, stands at 200 MHz while in PEA at only 20 kHz.”

PEA seems to have done the trick, yielding evidence of a passkey that allows control of many features in the FPGA.

“Further investigation,” the paper says, “revealed that this is a backdoor function with the key capable of unlocking many of the undocumented functions, including IP access and reprogramming of secure memory.”

The paper is clearly marked as a draft and Skorobogatov promises to detail the exploit fully at the 2012 Workshop on Cryptographic Hardware and Embedded Systems in Belgium.

One imagines the presentation will be rather well attended. ®

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
14 antivirus apps found to have security problems
Vendors just don't care, says researcher, after finding basic boo-boos in security software
How long is too long to wait for a security fix?
Synology finally patches OpenSSL bugs in Trevor's NAS
Israel's Iron Dome missile tech stolen by Chinese hackers
Corporate raiders Comment Crew fingered for attacks
Roll out the welcome mat to hackers and crackers
Security chap pens guide to bug bounty programs that won't fail like Yahoo!'s
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.