Monday, June 24, 2024

Safeguarding Chip Security: Challenges And Countermeasures

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Strategies such as enhanced testing, side-channel analysis, and security hardening can mitigate these threats, but challenges persist.

In semiconductor manufacturing, preserving the integrity and security of electronic chips emerges as a top priority. These electronic chips play an indispensable role in powering everyday gadgets and devices that individuals depend on, such as smartphones and laptops. Nonetheless, within this high-stakes arena, a pervasive menace known as hardware Trojans casts a substantial shadow over chip security. The ensuing discourse will explore the nature of hardware Trojans, their potential methods of implementation, and, perhaps most crucially, the strategies that can be employed to counteract them, ensuring the safeguarding of our digital lifestyles.

Understanding hardware Trojans

Hardware Trojans represent a class of malevolent functionalities surreptitiously incorporated into the Register Transistor Logic (RTL) netlist of a semiconductor chip before its actual fabrication. This nefarious tampering is typically orchestrated by malicious actors who manage to gain unauthorised access to the chip’s design files during the manufacturing process. What makes hardware Trojans particularly insidious is their capacity to remain covert and undetected by end-users and customers, lurking in the chip’s architecture until activated by a covert and unique sequence of actions known exclusively to the attacker responsible for their implantation. This covert behaviour underscores the stealthy nature of hardware Trojans, rendering them a significant threat to chip security and integrity.

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Consider a scenario where a semiconductor giant like AMD manufactures chips in fabrication plants worldwide. An attacker in one of these facilities infiltrates the RTL netlist and inserts a subtle piece of functionality. This added functionality remains dormant until the attacker activates it, potentially compromising the chip’s security.

Hardware Trojans are designed to occupy minimal on-chip space to evade detection, focusing primarily on digital circuitry like processors found in phones and laptops. Implementing a hardware Trojan can be as simple as counting the number of characters in a password and storing that count in a register, which can be achieved with approximately 1000 transistors. Since modern integrated circuits contain billions of transistors, uncovering a hardware Trojan becomes akin to finding a needle in a haystack.

Countermeasures against hardware Trojans

Mitigating hardware Trojans necessitates the adoption of innovative countermeasures that can effectively neutralise these threats. In this context, the semiconductor industry has developed and deployed a range of strategies, three of which stand out as particularly effective:

Enhanced functional testing

This approach involves the meticulous examination of the active logic regions within a semiconductor chip throughout the manufacturing process. Manufacturers exert significant effort to subject a chip to comprehensive testing, encompassing a wide array of signal paths and sequences. Nevertheless, due to the intricate and multifaceted nature of contemporary chips, coupled with the imperative for rapid time-to-market, achieving a truly exhaustive testing regime proves to be a challenging endeavour that can only be occasionally realised.

Side channel fingerprinting with a golden design

Within this methodology, a trusted and established ‘golden’ integrated circuit is a point of reference. The process involves subjecting this gold-standard design to rigorous testing and comparing its performance characteristics with the newly fabricated chip. By conducting this comparative analysis, discrepancies in critical aspects such as power consumption, signal delay, and signal strength can be discerned.

However, it is essential to note that while this method effectively identifies potential hardware Trojans, it does possess a vulnerability of its own. The vulnerability stems from the possibility that the golden design used for comparison could be compromised if it originates from the same fabrication unit as the chip under scrutiny. In such cases, malicious actors with access to the fabrication unit may tamper with the golden design, rendering it unreliable as a reference point. This inherent limitation underscores the need for additional layers of security and verification within the semiconductor manufacturing process to safeguard against potential manipulation and ensure the integrity of the golden reference design.

Security hardening and isolation

This pragmatic approach entails the meticulous isolation of pivotal security-related functionalities within a semiconductor chip, followed by subjecting these isolated components to an intensive battery of tests, including comprehensive functional testing and side-channel fingerprinting. The objective of this rigorous testing regimen is to meticulously scrutinise the behaviour of these critical functionalities, paying keen attention to any deviations or anomalies that may arise during the evaluation process. Should any irregularities be detected during these examinations, a red flag is raised, prompting a further in-depth investigation into the chip’s design and behaviour.

This strategy, characterised by its meticulous attention to security-critical components and its reliance on a combination of functional testing and side-channel analysis, has gained widespread acceptance and implementation within the semiconductor industry. It serves as a robust line of defence against potential hardware Trojans and bolsters the overall security and trustworthiness of electronic devices.

Real-life implications
To underscore the gravity of hardware attacks, consider the 2018 Spectre and Meltdown attacks. These vulnerabilities affected various devices, including ARM, Intel, and AMD architectures, which power PCs, smartphones, servers, data centres, and IoT devices.
• These attacks exploited hardware flaws in processors, enabling user-space applications to access sensitive data such as passwords, bank details, and social security numbers.
• Other notable security exploits include ‘Rowhammer,’ which exploits electromagnetic interference in DRAM cells to glean information from neighbouring cells. Mitigation techniques include frequent memory refreshing and isolating critical memory regions.
• The semiconductor manufacturing world faces constant threats from hardware Trojans and other security vulnerabilities.

Protecting digital lives requires a multi-faceted approach, encompassing rigorous testing, isolation of critical functions, and continuous innovation to stay ahead of attackers. As technology continues to advance, so too must our efforts to secure the chips that power our interconnected world.

Protecting intellectual property and ensuring foolproof chip applications

Semiconductor manufacturing operates within a high-stakes and fiercely competitive environment, where the integrity of intellectual property (IP) and the security of semiconductor chips are absolute priorities. As technology advances at an ever-accelerating pace, so too do the threats that loom ominously on the horizon, capable of compromising the confidentiality of susceptible chip designs and innovative breakthroughs. In this dynamic and rapidly evolving landscape, the protection of valuable intellectual assets and the assurance of chip security remain critical imperatives that demand constant vigilance and innovative defences.

Imagine the nightmare scenario of an attacker gaining access to a chip’s design and production process, potentially stealing valuable IP and even counterfeiting products. Thankfully, there is a solution: split manufacturing. This innovative approach divides your chip’s design into two distinct components, offering enhanced protection:

Front end

This component demands advanced manufacturing capabilities and is often outsourced to trusted foundries like TSMC and Global Foundries in Europe and Taiwan.

Back end

In contrast, the back end involves a more straightforward implementation that can be carried out locally, in your home country or facility.

Once both components are individually manufactured, they are integrated to create the final chip. This approach ensures that no single entity can access the complete design, significantly reducing the risk of IP theft and counterfeiting.

Hardware security: Strengthening chip defence

While software-based security measures, such as antivirus programs, undeniably serve as vital components of safeguarding digital environments, it is equally imperative to direct attention toward hardware-level security. Hardware-based security measures offer an additional and indispensable layer of defence against the diverse array of potential threats that exist in the ever-evolving digital landscape. In the following discussion, we will embark on a comprehensive exploration of these hardware-centric security strategies, elucidating their significance and efficacy in fortifying digital systems and data against malicious actors and vulnerabilities.

Removing JTAG and serial communication interfaces

Consider physically eliminating JTAG and serial communication interfaces from your products or boards if they are not required for reprogramming. These interfaces can be gateways for attackers to manipulate microcontroller or microprocessor binaries. This practice is widely accepted and helps prevent unauthorised code tampering.

Validating firmware authenticity with CRC checks

Implement cyclic redundancy checks (CRC) to verify the authenticity of firmware updates. CRC checks are straightforward operations that use adders and multipliers already present in your chip. During wireless transfers, CRC checks can detect accidental changes or tampering, ensuring only authorised firmware updates are applied.

Leveraging memory management units (MMU) and memory protection units (MPU)

These hardware features are prevalent in modern processors and microcontrollers, offering enhanced security by isolating critical data from potential threats. MMUs and MPUs restrict a process’s access to specific memory regions, improving security.

Encryption for secure firmware distribution

When distributing firmware updates, encryption prevents unauthorised access and tampering. Many modern processors come equipped with encryption and decryption modules, simplifying the secure distribution of firmware updates.

Protecting intellectual property and chip applications is paramount, with split manufacturing emerging as a solution. Hardware-based security measures, such as encryption and memory management, complement software safeguards. Collaboration, research, and vigilance are vital for preserving chip integrity and security in our ever-evolving digital landscape.

In the competitive world of semiconductor manufacturing, safeguarding intellectual property is non-negotiable. Employing strategies such as split manufacturing and implementing hardware-level security measures ensures that your designs and innovations remain secure from malicious actors and counterfeiters. By adhering to these practices, you can fortify your chip security, protect your intellectual property, and maintain the trust of your customers and partners. In an era where technology is advancing at an unprecedented pace, staying one step ahead of potential threats is essential to maintain the integrity of your products and the security of your intellectual assets. In semiconductor manufacturing, securing electronic chips is crucial as they power our daily devices. However, hardware Trojans pose a persistent threat by stealthily infiltrating chip designs during fabrication. Strategies like enhanced testing, side-channel analysis, and security hardening can mitigate these threats, but challenges persist.


This article is based on a tech talk at EFY Expo 2023 in Delhi by Vasuki Shankar, Senior Software Engineer, NVIDIA. It has been transcribed and curated by Akanksha Sondhi Gaur, Research Analyst and Journalist at EFY

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