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Johannes Bauer, "On Inexpensive Methods for Improving Security of Embedded Systems," PhD Thesis, Department of Computer Science, Friedrich–Alexander University of Erlangen–Nuremberg (FAU), November 2016. (Advisor: Felix C. Freiling; Referee: Falko Dressler)


We usually scrutinize security of embedded systems under an extraordinarily sophisticated attacker model: the adversary has physical possession of the target and unlimited time to break it. For the defensive side, this forms an exceptionally challenging scenario. This thesis studies fortification of systems against such adversaries. The principal contributions lie in the field of embedded security, where we explore methods of building secure systems in a resource-efficient manner. This allows implementation of our countermeasures on resource-constrained microcontrollers. While these have a detrimental effect on runtime performance, the cost of the hardware itself remains unaffected, thereby providing an attractive and inexpensive alternative to hardware countermeasures. Next, we will briefly outline our contributions. Attacks such as Differential Power Analysis (DPA) enable adversaries to exploit even the most minute differences in data dependent energy consumption. To make it more difficult for attackers to gain access to secrets within a chip, effective countermeasures need to be employed. One technique, implemented using only software, is described by us as a first contribution. We use binary recompilation to achieve binary code polymorphism. This causes different characteristic emission patterns for each call of a protected cryptographic primitive. Due to extensive and sophisticated pre-calculations which we perform at compile time, execution is extremely fast during runtime. Since not only power consumption but also timing differences are something that attackers can exploit with great accuracy, we studied detection of timing leaks. Considering the architecture of today’s increasingly complex microcontrollers, manual estimation of runtime has become virtually infeasible. Therefore, as a second contribution, we developed a behavioral Cortex-M core emulator which permits cycle-accurate simulation. We show how to incorporate such an emulator in a semi-automatic vetting process. After compilation, all security-relevant routines within the code are analyzed and checked for timing discrepancies. The complexity of modern microcontroller units (MCUs) is shown from a different angle when considering attackers who can manipulate firmware. Since the reduction of electromagnetic interference (EMI) is an important goal of system designers, many recent MCUs already include software-tunable EMI countermeasures. In our third contribution, we show how these anti-EMI peripherals can be abused to construct covert channels. Unfortunately for the defensive side, these channels operate in the radio frequency domain and thus could be used for wireless transmission of data - even when the benign application was never intended to perform such communication. We describe how changes in parasitic electromagnetic emission can be used to encode data and what hardware is necessary to recover this data. To increase the resistance of embedded systems against physical attacks, it is common to use special semiconductors which employ hardware countermeasures. The downside of such integration is that the specialized device usually dictates the exact cryptographic construction. How such hardware can be used nevertheless to augment general-purpose microcontrollers is something we focus on with our fourth contribution. As a demon- stration, we incorporate a hardware security module in the handshake of the transport layer security (TLS) protocol. We do so without the need to create a custom cipher suite and without modifying the TLS handshake itself; instead, we use a generic approach by relying on implementation-specific protocol invariants and therefore get around the limitations which would be imposed by nonstandard protocol modifications. When processors make use of external peripherals, such as dynamic random access memory (DRAM), another attack vector arises: Due to parasitic effects of the physical construction of modern high-density RAM, it is possible that the hardware cannot guarantee data integrity for all bit patterns. To counteract this, a technique commonly used by memory controllers is the scrambling of data to gain an effectively bias-free bitstream on the RAM chip. With our fifth contribution, we show how one such scrambling scheme by Intel works in-depth and how scrambled memory can be descrambled to reveal the original memory content. In the field of forensics, this is highly relevant: When physical memory acquisition, for example by cold-boot attacks, is used to capture a memory image, descrambling of that image is required before it can be analyzed meaningfully. We furthermore discuss how knowledge about scrambler-internal workings may open up possibilities for an attacker to deliberately cause disturbances in RAM.

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Johannes Bauer

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    author = {Bauer, Johannes},
    title = {{On Inexpensive Methods for Improving Security of Embedded Systems}},
    advisor = {Freiling, Felix C.},
    institution = {Department of Computer Science},
    location = {Erlangen, Germany},
    month = {11},
    referee = {Dressler, Falko},
    school = {Friedrich--Alexander University of Erlangen--Nuremberg (FAU)},
    type = {PhD Thesis},
    year = {2016},

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