ECE: Electrical & Computer Engineering
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ECEs spot FPGA security weakness; Finding may lead to new chip ID

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Zhimin Chen

Using inexpensible, easily available tools-an ocilloscope and MATLAB, Zhimin Chen demonstrates how to crack the security key on a Spartan FPGA board that is used in Virginia Tech computer engineering courses. "This is cheap equipment," says Assistant Professor Patrick Schaumont. "If we can do this, anybody can."

Researchers in Secure Embedded Systems have demonstrated a previously unremarked security hole in embedded systems — leaving proprietary data available to thieves and hackers using side channel attacks.

Side channel attacks use non-intrusive monitoring of secure hardware to unlock the secrets of an embedded system. By measuring the power consumption for example, hackers are able to infer the internal activities of the system including internally hidden security keys.

Conventional wisdom says that a glitch-free masked circuit is good protection against these common power-based attacks, but Patrick Schaumont's group has shown that state-dependent circuit effects are also a source of leakage. “Because of the difficulties of mass producing intricate microchips, every single chip is a little bit different,” Schaumont explains. “Each individual chip leaks differently.”

The good news is that the same findings can be used to develop unique identifiers for individual chips.

“We want to quantify the differences and see if this could help with applications such as automobile identification, or for software firms to track their licenses,” he says.

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