What Does Cybersecurity Have To Do With Semiconductors?

Key elements of a comprehensive IoT security solution.


More than ever, electronic devices are critical to everyday life and semiconductor chips are the brains inside the devices that run the world. They wake us in the morning, keep us up to date with the news, emails and conversations, handle our daily chores, and even keep us alive in the hospitals. For example, laptops, smartphones, the Internet, the banks, automobile controls and an endless list of devices can be trusted to run properly only if the chips they comprise of are free of weakness and security vulnerabilities.

The combination of advancements in chip technology and the extraordinary level of globalization in the semiconductor industry has spurred enormous changes in the way semiconductor chips are designed, manufactured and used. These changes bring many benefits to the consumer including faster time to market and lower prices, but they have created a huge opportunity for hackers to identify vulnerabilities and launch cyberattacks. While hackers can infect a computer or even a system of computers with malware, the connections are broader, deeper and less well-managed in the IoT-powered world.

The key to IoT security is a strong hardware foundation

The increasing diversity and complexity of IoT applications creates more challenges for System on a Chip (SoC) designers, and these are no longer limited to time and cost. More complexity means significant integration and validation effort, huge investments, and extensive engineering resource requirements. Chip designers need to focus on implementing security at the design phase, building hardware that incorporates hardened security features to see devices protected throughout their lifecycle from chip manufacturing, to day-to-day deployment, to decommissioning. This can be accomplished with a silicon-based hardware root of trust that offers a range of robust security options for IoT devices, including secure connectivity between the IoT device and its cloud service.

A hardware root of trust can be established by a variety of methods. The simplest mechanism is to run start-up code directly from a non-writable location in the processor’s memory map. Alternatively, to allow updates and more flexibility, the code can be loaded from a protected memory region into a protected memory store of some sort set aside for firmware execution, among a number of other methods. The important aspect for a root of trust is to be sure that the initial code is what the manufacturer intended, before execution. When it starts, the root of trust derives its internal keys from supplied device identity inputs and executes self-tests and code validation for itself. If these tests pass, it can move on to validate the first piece of code in the chain of trust. For organizations concerned about maintaining a secure device computing environment, the operating assumption needs to be this: boot securely, or don’t boot at all. Many IoT SoC providers across the industry have begun to adopt that mantra and are implementing mechanisms that provide a hardware-based root of trust.

Design approach: What it takes to secure an SoC

The techniques and procedures to verify hardware security must catch up to the complexity of the SoCs that implement them. A secured SoC is paramount for the safe and reliable operation of IoT connected devices. The same capability that enables the SoC to perform their tasks must also enable them to recognize and handle threats. Fortunately, the investment in development of secure silicon architectures and foundation building blocks has been increasing overtime. Secured SoCs are used to provide confidentiality, integrity, authentication, non-repudiation, and access control to the system. This can be accomplished with a silicon-based hardware root of trust that offers a range of robust security options for IoT devices. More specifically, a comprehensive IoT security solution should include the following capabilities:

  • Secure boot: Secure boot utilizes cryptographic code signing techniques, ensuring that a device only executes code generated by the device OEM or another trusted party. Use of secure boot technology prevents hackers from replacing firmware with malicious versions, thereby preventing attacks.
  • Mutual authentication: Every time an IoT device connects to the network it should be authenticated prior to receiving or transmitting data. This ensures that the data originates from a legitimate device and not a fraudulent source. Cryptographic algorithms involving symmetric keys or asymmetric keys can be utilized for two-way authentication.
  • Secure communication (encryption):Protecting data in transit between a device and its service infrastructure (the cloud). Encryption ensures that only those with a secret decryption key can access transmitted data. For example, a smart washing machine that sends usage data to the service operator must be able to protect information from digital eavesdropping.
  • Security lifecycle management: The lifecycle management feature allows service providers and OEMs to control the security aspects of IoT devices when in operation. Rapid over the air (OTA) device key(s) replacement during cyber disaster recovery ensures minimal service disruption. In addition, secure device decommissioning ensures that scrapped devices will not be repurposed and exploited to connect to a service without authorization.

Bottom line

IoT is poised to revolutionize the world. There are incredible opportunities that IoT brings – some being realized right now, others yet to come. It’s certainly no secret that software-based security can be hacked. However, a silicon-based hardware root of trust offers a range of robust security options for IoT devices. Enabled by Moore’s Law, integration of a silicon root of trust into IoT silicon makes a lot of sense. As more and more devices are brought online, the importance of heightened security will only increase. In conclusion, securing IoT will require a holistic approach that offers robust protection against a wide range of threats through carefully thought out system design, using techniques like hardware roots of trust. This shift will allow organizations to secure devices throughout the product lifecycle from device manufacturing all the way to end-of-life decommissioning.

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