Security Becomes A Multi-System Issue

Design teams will have to bake strategies in from the start, no matter how insignificant the device.


The fallout from the Mirai malware attack last week was surprising, given that it was published on the Internet several months ago as open-source. Despite numerous warnings, it still managed to cause denial of service attacks at Amazon, Netflix, and a slew of other companies that are supposed to be able to fend off these kinds of attacks.

The good news is that it more people talking about the issue. But the real challenge isn’t stopping one attack. It’s packing enough security features into designs to prevent security breaches of every sort, including those that can come from other electronics that weren’t even considered as part of the design process.

Just as devices get more sophisticated, so do hackers. Being able to stop attacks with a thumbprint or a password isn’t realistic anymore. It now requires a rethinking of the fundamental architecture for any connected device, which is basically everything with a power supply these days. The good and bad of a connected world is that everything and everyone is connected. And the best way to deal with that effectively is at the system design level.

This raises some interesting challenges:

  1. Cost. There is a monetary penalty for adding security, whether that means extra circuitry and area, or additional verification steps that can stretch out the design process and affect both NRE and time to market. While there are plenty of techniques available for safeguarding a chip, such as root of trust technology, physically unclonable functions, and crypto processors that can be added into an SoC, those costs need to be recouped in a market that usually favors the least-cost supplier. In a server or a smart phone this isn’t a huge deal, because the price can be built into the cost of the system. In a consumer device, it’s still hard to sell security as an added value.
  2. Performance and power. To be truly secure, a system will require a combination of both active and passive security elements. Active security requires power, which can limit battery life or increase energy costs. Passive security requires additional circuitry, which lengthens a signal path and slows a device. The more secure a device, the more sophisticated the circuitry in that device, and the bigger the drain on both power and performance. And if this is a bolt-on solution to an existing design, rather than a well-thought out solution at the architectural level, it will have an even greater impact on performance and potentially power.
  3. Flexibility. Enough future-proofing needs to be added to make sure security features can still function effectively 5 or 10 years later. While servers may be swapped out every four years and smart phones every two or three, some devices will remain connected for a dozen or more years. This requires everything from programmable circuits to the ability to do software updates on code that in the past was considered bulletproof. The reality is that everything can be hacked, and if there is enough at stake it will be.

And that’s just the beginning. There are gaping holes everywhere, from application software to Internet access to the physical supply chain for everything that goes into systems. All of this needs to be looked at with increasing scrutiny, augmented with standards for security that are basically the equivalent of what Underwriters Laboratories has done for electrical and industrial standards.

The reality is that security breaches can cause the same kinds of physical harm as a faulty wiring scheme, even with devices that in themselves are benign. Those risks increase significantly when they are connected together into systems of systems that are also connected to safety-critical systems. It’s time to look at this at a multi-system, multi-disciplinary level and to tackle it with the same kind of innovation that made complex semiconductor design a reality. Otherwise, we literally could be playing with fire.

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