Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Threat modeling for FPGA software backdoors

I've been interested in the security of compilers and related toolchains ever since I first read about Ken Thompson's compiler backdoor many years ago. In a nutshell, this famous backdoor does two things:

  • Whenever the backdoored C compiler compiles the "login" command, it adds a second code path that accepts a hard-coded default password in addition to the user's actual password
  • Whenever the backdoored C compiler compiles the unmodified source code of itself, it adds the backdoor to the resulting binary.
The end result is a compiler that looks fine at the source level, silently backdoors a critical system file at compilation time, and reproduces itself.

Recently, there has also been a lot of concern over backdoors in integrated circuits (either added at the source code level by a malicious employee, or at the netlist/layout level by a third-party fab). DARPA even has a program dedicated to figuring out ways of eliminating or detecting such backdoors. A 2010 paper stemming from the CSAW Embedded Systems Challenge presents a detailed taxonomy of such hardware Trojans.

As far as I can tell, the majority of research into hardware Trojans has been focused on detecting them, assuming the adversary has managed to backdoor the design in some way that provides him with a tactical or strategic advantage. I have had difficulty finding detailed threat modeling research quantifying the capability of the adversary under particular scenarios.

When we turn our attention to FPGAs, things quickly become even more interesting. There are several major differences between FPGAs and ASICs from a security perspective which may grant the adversary greater or lesser capability than with an ASIC.

Attacks at the IC fab

The function of an ASIC is largely defined at fab time (except for RAM-based firmware) while FPGAs are extremely flexible. When trying to backdoor FPGA silicon the adversary has no idea what product(s) the chip will eventually make it into. They don't even know which pins on the die will be used as inputs and which as outputs.

I suspect that this places substantial bounds on the capability of an attacker "Malfab" targeting FPGA silicon at the fab (or pre-fab RTL/layout) level since the actual RTL being targeted does not even exist yet. To start, we consider a generic FPGA without any hard IP blocks:
  • Malfab does not know which flipflops/SRAM/LUTs will eventually contain sensitive data, nor what format this data may take.
  • Malfab does not know which I/O pins may be connected to an external communications interface useful for command-and-control.
As a result, his only option is to create an extremely generic backdoor. At this level, the only thing that makes sense is to connect all I/O pins (perhaps through scan logic) to a central malware logic block which provides the ability to read (and possibly modify) all state in the device. This most likely would require two major subsystems:
  • A detector, which searches I/Os for a magic sync sequence
  • A connection from that detector to the FPGA's internal configuration access port (ICAP), used for partial reconfiguration and readback.
The design of this protocol would be very challenging since the adversary does not know anything about the external interfaces the pin may be connected to. The FPGA could be in a PLC or similar device whose only external contact is RS-232 serial on a single input pin. Perhaps it is in a network router/switch using RGMII (4-bit parallel with double data rate signalling).

I am not aware of any published work on the feasibility of such a backdoor however I am skeptical that a sufficiently generic Trojan could be made simple enough to evade even casual reverse engineering of the I/O circuitry, and fast enough to not seriously cripple performance of the device.

Unfortunately for our defender Alice, modern FPGAs often contain hard IP blocks such as SERDES and RAM controllers. These present a far more attractive target to Malfab as their functionality is largely known in advance.

It is not hard to imagine, for example, a malicious patch to the RAM controller block which searches each byte group for a magic sync sequence written to consecutive addresses, then executes commands from the next few bytes. As long as Malfab is able to cause the target's system to write data of his choice to consecutive RAM addresses (perhaps by sending it as the payload of an Ethernet frame, which is then buffered in RAM) he can execute arbitrary commands on the backdoor engine. If one of these commands is "write data from SLICE_X37Y42.A5FF to RAM address 0xdeadbeef", and Malfab can predict the location of a transmit buffer of some sort, he now has the ability to exfiltrate arbitrary state from Alice's hardware.

I thus conjecture that the only feasible way to backdoor a modern FPGA at fab time is through hard IP. If we ensure that the JTAG interface (the one hard IP block whose use cannot be avoided) is not connected to attacker-controlled interfaces, use off-die SERDES, and use softcore RAM controllers on non-standard pins, it is unlikely that Malfab will be able to meaningfully affect the security of the resulting circuit.

Attacks on the toolchain

We now turn our attention to a second adversary, Maldev - the malicious development tool. Maldev works for the FPGA vendor, has compromised the source repository for their toolchain, has MITMed the download of the toolchain installer, or has penetrated Alice's network and patched the software on her computer.

Since FPGAs are inherently closed systems (more so than ASICs, in which multiple competing toolchains exist), Alice has no choice but to use the FPGA vendor's binary-blob toolchain. Although it is possible in theory for a dedicated team with sufficient time and budget to reverse engineer the FPGA and/or toolchain and create a trusted open-source development suite, I discount the possibility for the scope of this section since a fully trusted toolchain is presumably free of interesting backdoors ;)

Maldev has many capabilities lacking to Malfab since he can execute arbitrary code on Alice's computer. Assuming that Alice is (justifiably) paranoid about the provenance of her FPGA software and runs it on a dedicated machine in a DMZ (so that it cannot infect the remainder of her network), this is equivalent to having full access to her RTL and netlist at all stages of design.

If Alice gives her development workstation Internet access, Maldev now has the ability to upload her RTL source and/or netlist, modify it at will on his computer, and then push patches back. This is trivially equivalent to a full defeat of the entire system.

Things become more interesting when we cut off command-and-control access. This is a realistic scenario if Alice is a military/defense user doing development on a classified network with no Internet connection.

The simplest attack is for Maldev to store a list of source file hashes and patches in the compromised binary. While this is very limited (custom-developed code cannot be attacked at all), many design teams are likely to use a small set of stock communications IP such as the Xilinx Tri-Mode Ethernet MAC, so patching these may be sufficient to provide him with an attack vector on the target system. Looking for AXI interconnect IP provides Maldev with a topology map of the target SoC.

Another option is graph-based analytics on the netlist at various stages of synthesis. For example, by looking for a 32-bit register initialized to 0x67452301, which is in a strongly connected component with three other registers initialized to 0xefcdab89, 0x98badcfe, and 0x10325476, Maldev can say with a high probability that he has found an implementation of MD5 and located the state registers. By looking for a 128-bit comparator between these values and another 128-bit value, a hash match check has been found (and a backdoor may be inserted). Similar techniques may be used to look for other cryptography.


If FPGA development is done using silicon purchased before the start of the project, on an air-gapped machine, and without using any pre-made IP, then some bounds can clearly be placed on the adversary's capability.

I have not seen any formal threat modeling studies on this subject, although I haven't spent a ton of time looking for them due to research obligations. If anyone is aware of published work in this field I'm extremely interested.