When Computer Attacks Target Hardware

Hackers and researchers are increasingly interested in hardware attacks on electronic devices. These make it possible to circumvent security protocols, to track Internet users or quite simply to destroy machines.

At the mention of a computer attack, one thinks above all of a virus making its way through the maze of lines of code. The idea that these threats consist of programs attacking other programs is, however, reductive. software, or softwaresoperate thanks to a set of electronic components that are referred to as the hardware part, or hardware. This ranges from a chip in a sensor that detects movement to turn on the light in front of a garage, to dozens of state-of-the-art processors within a supercomputer.

Why (and how) to attack the material?

There are two main scenarios. Side channel attacks are a way of circumvent cryptographic security software protocols, which are based on mathematical problems considered too complex to be solved by anyone who does not hold the key. Instead of forcing these algorithms, the attacker will analyze the operation of the hardware, by its power consumption or its calculation time, during the execution of these algorithms to deduce their secrets.

The chips in our bank cards can be targets for data theft, especially when making contactless payments.

In the other broad category, foul attacks consist of pushing the hardware in its entrenchments, for example by heating it beyond its limits, to block the computer system. In either case, the purpose is usually to recover information rather than destroy a device.

if software is regularly updated, the components of a computer can remain unchanged for many years and replacing them with each new threat would be at an astronomical cost.

These attacks were first imagined to the theft of bank data on the chips of our credit cardsexplains Lilian Bossuet, professor at Jean Monnet University in Saint-Étienne and member of the Hubert Curien laboratory.. These approaches are now applied to mobile phones, whose circuits are poorly protected. However, the situation is even worse in the Internet of Things, where devices are both ubiquitous and very little, if at all, secure. » Whether they are aiming for hardware where the software, the attacks pass through faults. Computer security researchers track down these same defects, with the aim of correcting them before they are discovered by malicious people.

But while software weaknesses can sometimes be fixed with just a few lines of code, changing the hardware is much more difficult. It joins another interest to attack it: if the software is regularly updated, the components of a computer can remain unchanged during many years and to replace them with each new threat would have an astronomical cost.

The Internet of Things as a gateway

Attacks against hardware are generally of two kindsexplains Clémentine Maurice, CNRS researcher at the CRIStAL laboratory. We first find attacks against hardware by hardware, and attacks against hardware by software. I’m mainly interested in this second scenario and side-channel attacks. »

The presence of communicating objects with antennas represents an additional fragility, as certain attacks can thus be carried out several tens of meters away.

Attacks also take advantage of the fact that electronic devices are increasingly connected. While efforts are made to protect computers, this is not necessarily the case for other devices linked to them. The presence of communicating objects with antennas represents an additional fragility, as certain attacks can thus be carried out several tens of meters away. ” Systems are increasingly complex and connected, and face ever more tortuous paths of attackexplains Lilian Bossuet. The point of entry into the system, usually the least secure part, is not necessarily the final target of an attack. »

He takes as an example Stuxnet, a virus probably designed by the American and Israeli services, which managed to find its way to the Iranian nuclear program in 2010.

Make talk and crack the hardware

The attacks of hardware by programs often go through the Internet browser, which will execute a script in a programming language such as JavaScript. There is no need to download and install a dubious program for this, such an attack can occur simply by clicking on a malicious web page. ” In hardware-to-hardware side-channel attacks, current consumption and electromagnetic fields give indications of the activity of the hardware, continues Clémentine Maurice. One can spot when it is performing cryptographic activities and attack it at the right time to retrieve encryption keys.»

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Some attacks rely on coded scripts like here in JavaScript.

In particular, there is a fault attack, called Rowhammer.js, which accesses all the physical memory of a computer by causing electrical charges to move. A commonly used image describes the principle of Rowhammer.js as drumming on a door we are not interested in, until the vibrations resonate and open the door that is actually targeted. Because if we easily have the idea of ​​a completely virtual and dematerialized computer, it is nevertheless based on electronic components which operate from very concrete physical phenomena. ” The electricity consumption and the photonic emanations also inform us about the activity of the transistorsadds Lilian Bossuet. We know that they consume the most power when they change state, that is to say when they manipulate information. You can sometimes even read the succession of 0s and 1s directly on an oscilloscope. . And if that’s not enough, various artificial intelligence techniques decipher this information more finely.

Identify users by their chips

To go even further into these physical vulnerabilities, Lilian Bossuet’s Sesam team operated a platform of four lasers, designed by the company Alphanov of which the CNRS is a founding member, to target components. Researchers thus manage to modify bits of information during the execution of a program, and thus to change instructions and values. The systems are then extremely vulnerable. The material presents other weaknesses, and is in particular targeted for the fingerprinting(fingerprinting). This concept consists of looking for ways to identify Internet users, most often without them knowing it. It is not necessarily a question of going back to their identity, but rather of recognizing a user who would return to a site, to see his activity before he comes there, etc. The best known digital fingerprints are cookies and often use IP addresses. If these elements go through the software part, hackers and researchers realized that it could also be done with hardware .

When Computer Attacks Target Hardware

Four-spot Alphanov laser bench, used to materially alter bits of information during program execution.

The Spirals teamwhere Clémentine Maurice works, developed with the Ben Gurion University of the Negev (Israel) DrawnApart, a technique of fingerprintingGPU-based: A computer’s graphics processor. ” We manage to distinguish between two GPUs of the same brand, the same model and running with the same operating system explains the researcher. With somefingerprinting software, we started from scratch each time the user updated his browser. There, we can track it as long as it keeps the same GPU, which it probably won’t change for several years . The length of time during which the trace is kept is indeed an essential parameter, because there is little point in briefly following the navigation of Internet users.

The material is intended in particular for the fingerprinting (fingerprinting). This concept consists of looking for ways to identify Internet users, most often without them knowing it.

To work, DrawApart uses a JavaScript script executed by an Internet browser. This program forces the GPU to simulate drawing points in three-dimensional space. By establishing sufficiently precise statistics on this task, DrawnApart manages to identify minute details specific to each chip. DrawnApart can be prevented from working by blocking Java or WebGL scripts, but this deprives the user of legitimate functionality based on these two technologies. For example, content on many web pages will appear disorganized and some media, such as videos, will no longer play.

Researchers at the Hubert Curien laboratory are also interested in fingerprintingequipment. ” We study non-cloneable physical functions, “microelectronic footprints that exploit minute differences between transistors in normally identical circuitssays Lilian Bossuet. By measuring these deviations, we can trace the material, but also target one circuit rather than another during an attack.. This approach was first developed for the fight against counterfeiting and circuit theft. However, the theme of cybersecurity has gradually established itself, in particular to detect when an integrated circuit is performing cryptographic calculations, which makes it possible to know when to attack them.

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Integrated circuits opened under an electromagnetic probe to analyze hardware fingerprinting.

But how do you protect yourself against all these threats? ” By trying to image our work, we realized that the security solutions correspond quite well to the barrier gestureslaughs Lilian Bossuet. For performance reasons, many processors share cache memory areas, where they can leave information that then becomes vulnerable. It is necessary to think of new architectures which make it possible to physically isolate the critical information. But strengthening security necessarily comes at a cost. If it is accepted for banking or military applications, it will be more difficult to tolerate for conventional or domestic uses.. »

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When Computer Attacks Target Hardware


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