System-On-Chip (SoC) — Security Design And Modelling

Vedant Ghodke
Mar 30 · 5 min read

Vedant Ghodke, 30th March

In modern computing systems, the hardware and software stack coordinate with each other to implement the system functionality. The previous researches have focused on security issues of the hardware itself, and have not covered another important aspect of hardware security that concerns providing an infrastructure for secure software execution. In particular, the role of hardware in protecting the assets stored in a chip or PCB (as discussed in An Overview — Systems-On-Chips (SOCs) And Their Security Risks) from malicious software have not been described in detail.

Similarly, protection of the data/code of one application from another potentially malicious one, has not been addressed. The hardware needs to support security against software attacks, considering all levels of the software stack, from the operating system to application software. These attacks can be mounted through either functional or side-channel vulnerabilities. In this article, we will discuss various scenarios of software-induced attacks on hardware and possible countermeasures.

A modern SoC architecture that consists of multiple IP blocks connected by an interconnect fabric.
SoC architecture with Point-to-point interconnects, shared bus interconnects, Network-on-chip interconnects.

SOC Security Requirements

In this section, I will give an introduction to the security requirements SoC designers need to consider. These requirements are determined based on potential adversaries and attack vectors at different stages of the SoC life cycle.

Assets In SoC

SoC assets can be broadly defined as system-critical and security-sensitive information stored in the chips. With computing devices being employed for several highly personalized activities (for example, shopping, banking, fitness tracking, and providing driving directions), these devices have access to a large amount of sensitive, personal information, which must be protected from unauthorized or malicious access. In addition to personalized end-user information, most modern computing systems contain highly confidential collateral from the architecture, design, and manufacturing, such as cryptographic and digital rights management (DRM) keys, programmable fuses, on-chip debug instrumentation, and defeature bits. It is crucial to our well-being that data in these devices are protected from unauthorized access and eventual corruption. Hence, security architecture, that is, a mechanism to ensure the protection of sensitive assets from malicious, unauthorized access, constitutes a crucial component of modern SoC designs.

Assets used in System-On-Chip Design

Adversarial Model

To ensure that an asset is protected, the designer needs comprehension of the power of the adversary. The effectiveness of virtually all security mechanisms is critically dependent on how realistic the model of the adversary is. Conversely, most security attacks rely on breaking some of the assumptions made regarding constraints on the adversary. The notion of the adversary can vary, depending on the asset being considered. For example, in the case of protecting DRM keys, the end-user would be an adversary, whereas the content provider (and even the system manufacturer) may be included among adversaries in the context of protecting the private information of the end-user.

SoC Security Vulnerabilities Showing The Need For An Adversarial Model

Rather than focusing on a specific class of users as adversaries, it is more convenient to model adversaries corresponding to each asset, and define protection and mitigation strategies with respect to that model. Defining and classifying the potential adversary is a creative process. It needs various considerations, such as whether the adversary has physical access, and which components they can observe, control, modify, or reverse engineer.

Debug Infrastructure For Multi-Core SoC

Design-For-Debug Methodology

Security requirements for SoCs often represent a conflict with Design-For-Test (DFT) and Design-For-Debug (DFD) infrastructure. DFD refers to on-chip hardware for facilitating post-silicon validation of a chip’s functional and security properties. A key requirement for post-silicon validation is the observability and controllability of internal signals during silicon execution. DFD in modern SoC designs includes facilities to trace critical hardware signals, dump contents of registers and memory arrays, patch microcode and firmware, and to create user-defined triggers and interrupts. To reduce the risk of an adversary snooping on data flowing through debugging infrastructure (for example, from a crypto IP to a processor IP), data should be protected using standard cryptography primitives.

Design-For-Debug (DFD) Architecture

In the case of off-chip key generation for the SoC, the key bits must be protected from the potential snooping from other IPs, especially any untrusted IP. This can be achieved by creating a security-aware test and debug infrastructure, which involves commensurate modification to local test/debug cells of an IP that effectively blocks other IPs from observing key bits.

Modified scan cell to allow for secure key transfer by masking the output with the INHIBIT signal

With the knowledge of the above SoC Security Requirements, we will be looking at SoC Security Policies to prevent the hardware and firmware vulnerabilities thus preventing unauthorized access to assets called the access control. Such access control can be defined by confidentiality, integrity, and availability (CIA) requirements. The goal of a security policy is to map the requirements to “actionable” design constraints that can be used by IP implementers, or SoC integrators, to develop protection mechanisms.

After all, what can actually be inferred is the ability to weigh out these disadvantages and educate ourselves on the mentioned security vulnerabilities and their causes, and perhaps try and propose state-of-the-art techniques to avoid any such security mishaps!

Stay well, stay safe and stay updated!