Grab a drink and pull up a chair, it's time to chat with our favorite embedded systems
It’s the penthouse suite of a swanky high-rise in downtown Boston. Killer views of the city skyline. A smartly-dressed ensemble of embedded systems, sensors, and devices are sharing a few laughs over martinis and light hors d’oeuvres. You know how these things go. The conversation inevitably turns to, “So, what do you do?” Let’s be flies on the wall and listen in for a bit.
“What do I do? I’m inside a CGM. A continuous glucose monitoring system. I provide real-time glucose information, around the clock. My wife will tell ya' I’m a workaholic. And not to toot my own horn or anything, but without me helping diabetics manage their blood sugar levels, diabetes can cause vision problems, nerve damage, kidney failure—even death. It’s stressful work. But enough about me. What do you do?”
“Three words. Self. Driving. Car. In particular, I’m part of the front-facing radar system. I inform the car when an object is too close so that it can react accordingly. Other sensors like me are already in use for blind-spot detection and other automotive safety features, but for driverless cars, we radar systems really need to step up our game. We must be more advanced, and we can’t make mistakes.”
“Self driving cars? Sure, those are cool. But last I checked, they still can’t fly."
“So, I take it YOU have something to do with an aircraft?”
“Well, if you consider ‘landing’ something to do with an aircraft, then guilty as charged. I’m part of the landing gear, and pretty much the epitome of what we call a “safety-critical embedded system.” If I malfunction, it most likely means damage to property, physical injury, or death. You think your job is stressful, CGM? Try being responsible for safely bringing a 300 ton metal bird carrying 500 people down from the sky.”
And this harmless banter can go on for hours until one Debbie Downer in the crowd—and there is always at least one—clears her throat and asks:
“So how big is your attack surface?”
And so ends the light-hearted chit chat. Just like that, with a loaded question that is completely legitimate in our modern world of network-connected systems. An attack surface is a way of quantifying threat exposure and assessing the risk of cyber attack. A system with several data interfaces, for example, has a larger attack surface than a system with just one or two controlled access points.
When calculating attack surfaces, here’s something that doesn’t add up. The cyber security industry has focused on building defensive software around our networks and applications, but because software contains the vulnerabilities that are exploited by attackers, these software-only security approaches have actually been making the attack surface of our embedded systems larger rather than smaller. Coupled with this grim reality is the fact that processors are not equipped to do anything about it. Our computing devices have processors with an architecture that dates back to the 1940s—an era when network intrusions could not even be imagined, never mind prevented. Conventional processors blindly execute whatever instructions they are presented with, even if those instructions were exploited; they simply don’t know the difference between good instructions and bad, and they can’t enforce what they don’t know.
These insights—vulnerable software and undiscerning processors—were the impetus of CoreGuardTM from Dover Microsystems. With its hybrid hardware-software architecture, CoreGuard integrates with conventional processors, on the same chip, to check every instruction for compliance with a set of micro-policies. CoreGuard is designed so that micro-policies are inaccessible from the system’s OS and application software; only CoreGuard hardware can access and run CoreGuard software. Unlike software-only security products that look for known vulnerabilities, micro-policies can detect and block entire classes of cyber attack. This means that CoreGuard can even stop zero-day attacks that exploit software vulnerabilities unknown to the vendor.
We started this article eavesdropping on the guests at a make-believe IoT cocktail party, but the truth is we are all guests at this party every day. IoT devices and other network-connected embedded systems are all around us, and as the number of these systems grows, so does the threat of cyber attacks. We need to disrupt this cycle. Dover Microsystems does that with silicon security that makes today’s processors—and the systems they are embedded in—immune to the cyber attacks of tomorrow.