Security of Embedded Systems
What is an Embedded System?
Embedded systems are computer systems that are integrated into other devices or products, such as automobiles, medical devices, and consumer electronics. These systems play a critical role in modern society and are becoming increasingly prevalent. However, they also pose significant security challenges for embedded systems.
The majority of software running on embedded systems is firmware, which can be easily changed, maliciously altered and then uploaded-replacing the authentic file. This may require external hardware or protocol reversal to achieve the objective, alternatively, it can also be done with some reverse engineering. Otherwise, given physical access to the device, it is fairly easy to understand what the firmware is doing and to identify vulnerabilities within it.
Many of the embedded systems in place today are unlikely to be connected to a network 100 percent of the time. Inconsistent or intermittent network connectivity increases the chances of a device connecting to an unsecured network. If an embedded system is online only occasionally, it is more likely to be dependent on a single node for network access, which creates a single point of failure or attack.
Additionally, devices with only occasional connectivity are more difficult to monitor for issues and more difficult to troubleshoot and upgrade.
For maintenance and upgrades, physical access to embedded devices is occasionally required. However, embedded devices that require or are open to physical access are exposed to security threats.
It is more difficult to keep these systems up-to-date because these systems need human input. The time and expense involved may be prohibitive.
The physical presence of an adversary is a concern because embedded systems devices are often located in vulnerable locations, such as public spaces or industrial settings. These devices can be exchanged or tampered with or used to introduce false information into the system to cause a direct failure and more susceptible to physical attacks.
Lack of regular updates: Many embedded systems are not designed to be updated regularly, which can leave them vulnerable to newly discovered security threats.
Limited resources: Embedded systems often have limited resources, including processing power, memory, and storage. This can make it difficult to implement robust security measures.
Connectivity: As more embedded systems are connected to the internet and other networks, they become vulnerable to a wider range of attacks, including remote attacks.
Privacy concerns: Embedded systems may collect and transmit sensitive data, such as personal health information, without the user’s knowledge or consent.
Lack of user awareness: Users of embedded systems may not be aware of the potential security risks or how to mitigate them, making them more vulnerable to attacks.
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Industrial control systems (ICS) and SCADA systems used in everything from vehicle manufacturing to energy plants are at particular risk for security threats. When these systems were developed and deployed, the critical embedded systems within them were created with a focus on uptime and cost control; security was not a priority. The lifespan of this equipment is often 20 years or longer, so as they are upgraded and come “online” they become susceptible to all of the risks that come with connectivity. The Human Machine Interface (HMI) represents a point of potential compromise. Because these systems are often older and upgraded over time, the risk is compounded by old operating systems, unpatched software, and legacy applications.
Overall, securing embedded systems requires a combination of hardware and software-based security measures, regular updates and maintenance, and user education and awareness.
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