Security a New Dimension in Embedded System Design

Embedded systems, which will be ubiquitously used to capture, store, manipulate, and access data of a
sensitive nature, pose several unique and interesting security challenges. Security has been the
subject of intensive research in the areas of cryptography, computing, and networking. However,
security is often mis-construed by embedded system designers as the addition of features, such as
specific cryptographic algorithms and security protocols, to the system. In reality, it is an entirely
new metric that designers should consider throughout the design process, along with other metrics
such as cost, performance, and in one form or another is a requirement for an increasing
number of embedded systems, ranging from low-end systems such as PDAs, wireless handsets, networked
sensors, and smart cards, to high-end systems such as routers, gateways, firewalls, storage servers,
and web servers. Technological advances that have spurred the development of these electronic systems
have also ushered in seemingly parallel trends in the sophistication of security attacks. It has been
observed that the cost of insecurity in electronic systems can be very high. For example, it was
estimated that the “I Love You” virus caused nearly one billion dollars in lost revenues worldwide.
With an increasing proliferation of such attacks, it is not surprising that a large number of users in
the mobile commerce world (nearly 52% of cell phone users and 47% of PDA users, according to a survey
by Forrester Research) feel that security is the single largest concern preventing the successful
deployment of next-generation mobile services. With the evolution of the Internet, information and
communications security has gained significant attention. For example, various security protocols
and standards such as IPSec, SSL, WEP, and WTLS, are used for secure communications. While security
protocols and the cryptographic algorithms they contain address security considerations from a
functional perspective, many embedded systems are constrained by the environments they operate in, and
by the resources they possess. For such systems, there are several factors that are moving security
considerations from a functioncentric perspective into a system architecture (hardware/software) design issue.

  • An ever increasing range of attack techniques for breaking security such as software, physical and
    side-channel attacks require that the embedded system be secure even when it can be logically or physically
    accessed by malicious entities. Resistance to such attacks can be ensured only if built into the system
    architecture and implementation.
  • The processing capabilities of many embedded systems are easily overwhelmed by the computational demands of
    security processing, leading to undesirable tradeoffs between security and cost, or security and performance.
  • Battery-driven systems and small form-factor devices such as PDAs, cell phones and networked sensors often
    operate under stringent resource constraints (limited battery, storage and computation capacities). These
    constraints only worsen when the device is subject to the demands of security.
  • Embedded system architectures need to be flexible enough to support the rapid evolution of security mechanisms
    and standards.
  • New security objectives, such as denial of service and digital content protection, require a higher degree of
    co-operation between security experts and embedded system architects.

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