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Securing Chips from the Ground Up

Jan. 23, 2020
Pre-silicon validation and verification of hardware security requirements are crucial, which pushes the need for more robust, efficient design flows.

Advanced electronic systems for connected autonomous vehicles (CAVs) and other safety- and security-critical applications use complex software stacks. At the bottom of the stack are integrated circuits (ICs) that include general-purpose and workload-optimized processing engines, and other semiconductor intellectual properties (IPs). However, hardware vulnerabilities may compromise the entire system.

Ensuring that ICs, both ASICs and FPGAs, have high integrity requires adequate hardware-development flows that deliver evidence of functional correctness (the IC satisfies its intended mission requirements), safety (the IC can prevent or control failures that could occur during operation due to physical effects), and trust and security (the IC doesn’t include unexpected or malicious additional functions that could be exploited in cyberattacks). Integrity properties aren’t an afterthought. All IC and IP development stages, including pre-silicon validation and verification, need adequate tools and methods to achieve high integrity. The safety and privacy of people is at stake.

Proving functional correctness of complex hardware designs is challenging. Over the past 20 years, new electronic-design-automation (EDA) technologies and methods have emerged to address this task. Safety requirements were once confined to niche, low-complexity applications. In the past 10 years, this has changed dramatically.

With the advent of advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS) and developments toward self-driving cars, new and established IP and IC providers have deployed functional safety flows for the development of complex electronic systems. Much credit goes to the ISO 26262 functional safety standard for road vehicles, which has enjoyed widespread adoption since its first draft was published more than 10 years ago.

Hardware security, on the other hand, is in its infancy. Industry, academia, and governmental institutions openly acknowledge that security isn’t only a software issue. Moreover, hardware functions implementing intelligent security mechanisms can also be part of the solution, reducing the need for software updates and security patches.

Information CIA

Most chips include features that are leveraged by software layers to implement security functions. Examples include authentication, handling of signatures for secure over-the-air software updates, and fast encryption and decryption of secure data. Certain hardware memory regions may be reserved and accessible only to applications with high privilege level. Some registers may contain secret data, for example an encryption key.

In more general terms, hardware must ensure that information security is maintained. This includes ensuring information confidentiality, integrity, and availability (CIA). Attackers may try to extract a secret key, for example, thus breaking information confidentiality, sometimes referred to as data leakage. They could also try to overwrite the secret key, replacing the lock rather than stealing the key, which breaks information integrity. This is sometimes referred to as data sanctity. Both information confidentiality and integrity are critical aspects of hardware security that need rigorous pre-silicon verification.

At present, commercial EDA tools offer proprietary methods to describe and verify information flow requirements. A standardized method would enable tool interoperability, improve reusability of requirements across design iterations, and allow providers of semiconductor IPs to deliver executable security specifications that could be independently checked by system-on-chip (SoC) integrators, and reused to ensure chip-level security.

Standardization Efforts

A recent survey, focusing on the security of the automotive supply chain, found that only 47% of companies assess security vulnerabilities during the early stages of the product release process, namely requirements and design phase, and development and testing phase (see figure). As stated in the survey report, “this process is contrary to the guidance of SAE J3061™ Cybersecurity Guidebook for Cyber-Physical Vehicle, which advocates for a risk-based, process-driven approach to cybersecurity throughout the entire product development life cycle.”

The ISO/SAE 21434 “Road vehicles – Cybersecurity Engineering” standard, currently under development and expected to be published in 2020, promises to improve this situation, using an approach similar to ISO 26262.

Another important initiative, which goes beyond the scope of automotive security, is the Accellera working group on Intellectual Property Security Assurance (IPSA). The goal of this working group, established in September 2018, is to provide a security assurance standard for hardware IPs to reduce and manage security risks when integrating IPs in embedded systems. SAE has also established a Cyber Physical Systems Security Committee (G-32) that aims to deliver a draft standard by 2021.


The safety and privacy of people depends on the security of complex electronic systems used in autonomous vehicles, aircraft, medical devices, 5G networks, critical infrastructure, and more. Security needs to be integrated into all hardware-development stages. Vulnerabilities need to be avoided or detected early, in the design phase, whenever possible.

Pre-silicon validation and verification of security requirements are challenging, critical tasks. New standards will have a crucial role in driving security awareness and expertise in the engineering community, while also enabling faster technological advances and more efficient flows for secure hardware development. For more information about IC security and trust assurance, read the OneSpin Trust and Security Solution flyer.

Sergio Marchese is Technical Marketing Manager at OneSpin Solutions.

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