Devices with embedded software are all around and they need to be protected. Why and from what? Many of them store essential information and perform critical functions impacting people and the environment. Unfortunately, the reality is that cybercriminals can try to attack any of such devices sooner or later, which may have detrimental effects. That’s why every embedded services company should consider safety features at the earliest design stage of product creation.
Let’s discuss how you can make your systems with built-in software secure and why it’s important.
Embedded System Explained
A device that contains hardware parts with built-in pieces of software and is supposed to fulfill either one function or a limited set of tasks is called an embedded system.
Embedded software systems can be simple (motion sensors in smart homes) or highly sophisticated (telematics trackers and robotics equipment in enterprises). Hence, various built-in solutions differ in terms of hardware and software constituents: for example, some solutions need an embedded OS and application software to operate, others can do only with firmware; some solutions require a barcode reader and a keyboard, others contain only sensors.
What Is Embedded Systems Security?
This is a branch of cybersecurity focusing on the protection of embedded software systems from possible unauthorized access and cyber-attacks or mitigating losses from such activities. To defend your system with built-in software, you can use various tools, e.g., security protocols and techniques, e.g., authentication and data encryption. We recommend you combine some methods to increase the safety level of your system.
Challenges of Embedded Systems Security
- Difference from traditional PCs. The specific nature of built-in systems, i.e., optimization for minimum computing and memory usage, limited additional resources, remote control, etc., makes them significantly different from traditional personal computers. That’s why security solutions for PCs are not always applicable to solutions with built-in software, and security specialists have to address issues by other means.
- Hardware and software conjunction. It’s more tricky to provide the appropriate security level for embedded systems than for common digital solutions because two layers — physical and digital — need to be protected. On the one hand, devices should be resistant to illegal external intrusion and mechanical damages. For example, manufacturers of interactive kiosks use shockproof housing, electronic locks, and watching cameras for this purpose. On the other hand, software should be resistant to hacking attacks and data leakage. In this regard, embedded software companies should use a combination of digital security mechanisms to defend the solution at all stages, including initialization, runtime activity, and updating. The choice of mechanisms depends on the system’s complexity and criticality.
- Remote location. Many devices with built-in software are mobile and used in the field. To update or upgrade the built-in software of such devices, the possibility of remote control is needed, including for the delivery of security updates.
- Mass production. Devices with built-in software are mass-produced. There may be thousands, or even millions, of the same devices. If hackers find a key to one device, they will be able to break into all of them.
- Long life cycles. The life cycles of embedded devices are generally much longer than those of PCs or consumer electronics. The devices can be used continuously for many years, and nobody can anticipate security challenges that may arise over the next ten years.
Best Practices for Embedded Security
There is no universal security strategy for all embedded devices. However, the usage of several protection layers is currently the guiding principle of developing reliable built-in solutions.
You should consider the following points:
- Software protection — ensure that the entire software architecture is protected against unauthorized changes. This is achieved by hardware support for code integrity, code signing, secure boot, and other methods.
- Data protection — ensure that unauthorized users can’t access the information stored in the device. This is achieved by authentication, strong passwords, and encrypted connections with the device. Embedded software systems should be capable of detecting and reporting failed login attempts and other potentially harmful activities.
- Device protection — ensure the integrity of the physical device itself. This is achieved due to the usage of extra strong materials, electronic locks, surveillance cameras, and other peripherals. In addition, some modern processors or motherboards can detect physical intrusion into the device’s housing, which can be used to break into the system.
As you can see, it’s not an easy task to ensure the sufficient security level of an embedded software system. Therefore, cybersecurity engineers should join the development team from the very beginning.
Now, let’s discuss four general steps that will help you create a security strategy for your embedded solution.
Step 1. Assessing Threats
To begin with, you should identify potential threats to understand what to defend the system against. While assessing vulnerabilities, do the following:
- Analyze the product life cycle, assess the impact of developers, hardware manufacturers, software providers, telecom operators, users, and any involved party on the final product safety.
- Determine all possible software and physical points for attacks and the possibility of their occurrence.
- Think over risk mitigation measures.
- Create a technical specification with safety requirements.
Step 2. Designing Architecture
Based on the requirements, you should design a reliable software architecture for your future solution. Here, you can leverage middleware and virtualization techniques that increase the level of abstraction, divide components, allow for running several operating systems on a shared platform.
Step 3. Choosing Tools and Components
The security of a software development platform you choose for your embedded product is critical. Ensure that it complies with international or regional security standards, and the vendor will help address software security issues if needed.
The same is true for selecting hardware components: all boards, sensors, and peripherals you buy from manufacturers and distributors should meet the safety standards required for your solution.
Step 4. Testing
Security testing of hardware and software components in an embedded system should not be neglected alongside other types of testing. Moreover, the elimination of discovered safety-related issues should be of high priority.
Integrate Security into Devices
Many modern embedded software systems are complex, networked devices designed to perform functions critical for society, such as managing transport infrastructure, power distribution networks, telecom services, and more.
Since most embedded devices are located outside corporate IT systems, integrating security features into such devices has become a must. They should have the capabilities to defend themselves independently.
You should think over the safety requirements from the earliest design stage and choose software tools and hardware parts according to these requirements. Remember that the security capabilities of your future solution will highly depend on hardware and software characteristics.