Analysis of Firmware Security in Embedded ARM Environments

TR Number
Journal Title
Journal ISSN
Volume Title
Virginia Tech

Modern enterprise-grade systems with virtually unlimited resources have many options when it comes to implementing state of the art intrusion prevention and detection solutions. These solutions are costly in terms of energy, execution time, circuit board area, and capital. Sustainable Internet of Things devices and power-constrained embedded systems are thus forced to make suboptimal security trade-offs. One such trade-off is the design of architectures which prevent execution of injected shell code, yet have allowed Return Oriented Programming (ROP) to emerge as a more reliable way to execute malicious code following attacks. ROP is a method used to take over the execution of a program by causing the return address of a function to be modified through an exploit vector, then returning to small segments of otherwise innocuous code located in executable memory one after the other to carry out the attacker's aims. We show that the Tiva TM4C123GH6PM microcontroller, which utilizes anARM Cortex-M4F processor, can be fully controlled with this technique. Firmware code is pre-loaded into a ROM on Tiva microcontrollers which can be subverted to erase and rewrite the flash memory where the program resides. That same firmware is searched for a Turing-complete gadget set which allows for arbitrary execution. We then design and evaluate a method for verifying the integrity of firmware on embedded systems, in this case Solid State Drives (SSDs). Some manufacturers make firmware updates available, but their proprietary protections leave end users unable to verify the authenticity of the firmware post installation. This means that attackers who are able to get a malicious firmware version installed on a victim SSD are able to operate with full impunity, as the owner will have no tools for detection. We have devised a method for performing side channel analysis of the current drawn by an SSD, which can compare its behavior while running genuine firmware against its behavior when running modified firmware. We train a binary classifier with samples of both versions and are able to consistently discriminate between genuine firmware and modified firmware, even despite changes in external factors such as temperature and supplied power.

Security, Firmware, Embedded