Cybersecurity needs a hardware root-of-trust

After decades of working with a variety cyber security technologies and battling an increasing variety of cyber threats, we now have a significant amount of experience in the cyber domain. Technologies, such as firewalls, virus scanners, encapsulation in VMs, integrity inspection, anomaly detectors operate by a variety of different mechanisms. But, the one salient lesson is found from studying all these techniques is that cyber security needs to be rooted in hardware.

Cyber threats continue to grow in spite of all the effort put into defeating them. This continuing difficulty with containing the cyber threat has prompted multiple efforts to develop new and better ways of protecting systems and defeating the malicious attacker. This started out with virus scanners that looked for the signatures of viruses and trojans that were attached to files downloaded to a computer. As defensed improved malware and attack techniques continued to evolve. This included things like cross-site scripting and SQL attacks. Today we have a truly insidious type of malware known as an advanced persistent threat or APT that surreptitiously invades a system or enterprise and slowly works its damage moving as needed from component to component all the while low and slow enough to remain undetected.

When the current mechanisms of protection are thwarted by a new malicious technique it is mainly through evading the technique by going around it. This is possible because modern computer systems are so complicated that many avenues are available to attack, i.e. these systems have large “attack surfaces”. One related issue is so tautologically true that it is rarely discussed. That is, computing systems are programmed with software, and that software can be changed in ways that are unintended by the original developer. This ability to change software in a deployed system is at the root of how malware and attacks work.

The ability to circumvent defenses, which are themselves software, is exactly because software is infinitely malleable. In one scenario, a piece of protection software relies on other software. If that other software is compromised that protection software may continue to operate without ever detecting that its functionality is now compromised. One solution is to wrap software with other software to protect it. E.g. using VMs to run processes is just such a method. If the guest O/S in the VM becomes compromised simply rebooting to a fresh copy of the VM will eliminate that threat. But, what if the VM is attacked and becomes compromised? Well the underlying hypervisor can be outfitted with detection software to find out. But, what if the hypervisor becomes compromised? One could continually add extra layers of software, but it’s easy to see that this game can continue indefinitely.

Hardware, on the other hand, is not malleable. That is the behavior of true hardware, not firmware or microcode, or even FPGAs, is defined by physics, and can’t be changed once deployed. Thus, the hardware forms a firm anchor on which to base the security of a system. Software can then be tied to the hardware and checked by the hardware for proper operation. Any modification of the software would be recognized by the protective hardware system, or prevented in the first place. Novel cyber security solutions based on hardware will provide lasting, effective security today and into the future.

At Cognoscenti Systems we are committed to using hardware rooted security with our ControlMQTM technology. The result is unmatched network security for control applications.

David Viel Founder and CEO

David is the founder of Cognoscenti Systems.