4 Embedded Security Challenges and How to Solve Them

Hadas Spektor
Hadas Spektor

6  min read | min read | 21/02/2024

What Is Embedded Security? 

Embedded security is a specialized field of cybersecurity that focuses on the protection of embedded systems. These are computer systems with a dedicated function within a broader mechanical or electrical system, which are integral to the functioning of many modern technologies. They are found in various devices from smartphones and household appliances to cars and industrial machines. Despite their ubiquity, many people remain unaware of their importance and the security risks they pose.

Embedded security aims to protect these systems from various threats and vulnerabilities. It involves implementing security measures at every stage of the embedded system’s life cycle, from design and development to deployment and operation. This includes securing the hardware, software, and network connectivity of the embedded system.

Embedded systems, given their widespread usage and often critical functions, represent a significant target for attackers. By securing these systems, you can protect not just the individual devices, but also the larger systems and infrastructures they support.

This is part of a series of articles about IoT security

 

Emergence of the Internet of Things (IoT) and the Importance of Embedded Security 

The Internet of Things (IoT) represents a massive expansion of the networked environment, interconnecting a myriad of devices from home appliances to industrial sensors. This interconnectivity, while bringing convenience and efficiency, also significantly broadens the attack surface. 

Embedded security within IoT devices is crucial to prevent unauthorized access, data breaches, and system takeovers. It involves securing each node in the network, ensuring secure data transmission, and maintaining the integrity and confidentiality of data. 

The heterogeneity and volume of IoT devices make it challenging to maintain a consistent security posture, necessitating robust and adaptable embedded security solutions. As IoT continues to grow, ensuring the security of these embedded systems becomes not just a technical necessity but also a fundamental requirement to preserve user trust and the stability of digital infrastructure.

4 Common Embedded System Security Challenges 

Let’s look at some of the aspects of embedded systems that make it harder to secure them.

1. Lack of Standardization

Unlike in other areas of cybersecurity, there are no universally accepted standards or best practices for securing embedded systems. This means that each system must be secured individually, based on its specific requirements and constraints. This lack of standardization can make embedded security more complex, and raises the risk of security gaps.

The lack of standardization also means that there is no common baseline for security in embedded systems. This can make it difficult to assess the security of a system, impacting the security visibility of an organization’s embedded ecosystem.

2. Unmanaged and Unpatched Devices

Many embedded systems are designed to operate autonomously, without regular maintenance or management. This can leave them vulnerable to attacks, as they may not receive necessary security updates or patches.

The autonomous nature of many embedded systems means that they may not have a human operator who can monitor their operation and respond to security incidents. This can make it difficult to detect and respond to attacks, and to recover from security breaches.

The long life cycles of many embedded systems mean that they may continue to operate long after their software and hardware have become outdated. This can leave them vulnerable to attacks that exploit these outdated components.

3. Insecure Network Connectivity

Many embedded systems are connected to networks, either for communication with other systems or for remote management. These network connections can represent a significant vulnerability, as they can be exploited by attackers to gain access to the embedded system.

The risk of network-based attacks is further increased by the growth of the IoT. This trend has led to an explosion in the number of network-connected embedded systems, greatly increasing the potential attack surface.

Embedded systems often use wireless network connections, which can be more difficult to secure than wired connections. These wireless connections can be exploited to launch attacks from a distance, without physical access to the embedded system.

4. Third-Party Components

Many embedded systems incorporate hardware and software components from various vendors, and in recent years, might also incorporate open source components. While this can offer benefits in terms of cost and efficiency, it also introduces potential security risks. These components may have their own vulnerabilities, which can be exploited by attackers. Since the system integrator often has no control over these components, they may not be able to patch or otherwise address these vulnerabilities.

The use of third-party components also complicates the process of securing the embedded system. It can be difficult to ensure that all components are secure, and to coordinate security measures across different vendors. This is further complicated by the fact that embedded systems often have long life cycles, during which components may become outdated and no longer supported by their vendors.

 

Best Practices for Embedded Security Systems 

Despite these challenges and the lack of official standards for securing embedded systems, there are some measures you can take to improve your embedded security.

Security By Design

Security by design is a principle that emphasizes integrating security measures from the earliest stages of system development. In the context of embedded systems, it involves considering security at every phase of the system’s life cycle, from hardware design and software development to deployment and maintenance. 

This approach ensures that security is not an afterthought but a fundamental component of the system. It requires a comprehensive understanding of potential threats and vulnerabilities and adopting practices such as minimizing the attack surface by reducing unnecessary functionalities, ensuring secure default settings, and employing rigorous testing and validation methods. 

By embedding security into the design process, developers can create systems that are inherently more resilient to attacks and capable of withstanding future threats, thereby safeguarding the embedded system throughout its operational life.

Root of Trust

A root of trust (RoT) is a trusted source that the system can rely on to provide a secure foundation. The RoT serves as a secure starting point that verifies the system’s integrity and authenticity.

The RoT can be a hardware, software, or hybrid solution. Hardware-based RoT is often considered more secure as it is less susceptible to software-based attacks. However, it can be more expensive and complex to implement.

Secure Boot

Secure boot is a security standard that ensures that a device boots using only software that is trusted by the Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM). Implementing secure boot can protect your system from a variety of threats, including rootkits and bootkits. 

The secure boot process starts with the root of trust. The RoT verifies the bootloader, which in turn verifies the operating system, and so on, creating a chain of trust. If any link in this chain fails to verify, the boot process is halted.

Trusted Execution Environment

A trusted execution environment (TEE) is a secure area inside a main processor. It ensures that sensitive data is stored, processed, and protected in a secure environment. The TEE guarantees that the data is protected from software attacks originating from the rich execution environment (REE), where the operating system and applications reside.

Implementing a TEE can provide a significant boost to an embedded system’s security. It can protect sensitive data and code from a variety of threats, including malware and unauthorized access. Additionally, it can also provide secure storage and processing for cryptographic keys, adding an extra layer of security.

Trusted Platform Module

The trusted platform module (TPM) is a dedicated microcontroller designed to secure hardware by integrating cryptographic keys into devices. It provides a hardware-based approach to manage user authentication, network access, and data protection.

The TPM can provide a variety of security benefits, including system integrity checks, secure storage of cryptographic keys, and hardware-based authentication. By incorporating a TPM into your embedded system, you can bolster its security and protect against a wide range of potential threats.

Prevent Stack or Buffer Overflow

A common security vulnerability in embedded systems is stack or buffer overflow. This occurs when a program writes more data to a buffer than it can hold, causing the additional data to overflow into adjacent memory locations. This can result in unpredictable system behavior, crashes, or even the execution of malicious code.

One of the best ways to prevent buffer overflow is by using secure coding practices. This includes validating all input data and ensuring that buffers are properly sized. Additionally, it is crucial to use programming languages and compilers that offer automatic stack protection. Regular testing and code review can help identify and address potential overflow issues before they become a problem.

However, other strategies are needed to prevent stack or buffer overflow in third party components, where the code is not under the control of the embedded system manufacturer or integrator. IoT security platforms can help gain visibility over vulnerabilities in embedded systems and protect them at runtime, even if it is not possible to remediate vulnerabilities in the code.

 

Deterministic Security for Embedded Systems with Sternum

Embedded systems raise serious security concerns, many of which are difficult to handle if a device is not designed for security from the outset. Millions of embedded systems in production were not designed with security in mind, or even if they were, they might include third party components with vulnerabilities. This is where Sternum comes in.

Sternum is an IoT security and observability platform. Embedded in the device itself, it provides deterministic security with runtime protection against known and unknown threats; complete observability that provides data about individual devices and the entire device fleet; and anomaly detection powered by AI to provide real-time operational intelligence.

Sternum operates at the bytecode level, making it universally compatible with any IoT device or operating system including RTOS, Linux, OpenWrt, Zephyr, Micirum, and FreeRTOS. It has low overhead of only 1-3%, even on legacy devices. 

To learn more about how we help MDMs streamline IoT security and and build scalable and reliable products, check out this customer webinar we did with Medtronic:

Learn more about Sternum for IoT security

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