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Researchers Find Undetectable Ultra-Low-Level CPU Hacking Method



/ 3 years ago

SemiconductorWire-640x353

Researchers at the University of Massachusetts have created a method to break a CPU’s internal cryptographic mechanisms, using a technique that is completely undetectable using any currently known methods.

While there have been methods for this for years, they all leave a trace, even if it involves checking the chip with a microscope you can get in and see that literal backdoors were created, or that security had been damaged, weakened or circumvented using what ever means. The problem with the new technique is that even with a high powered microscope, you cannot tell that someone has been tinkering with the hardware of the CPU.

By “doping” the random number transistors, the results can be changed from a random to a constant, which is obviously bad news for anything that relies on this number being an unknown factor for security purposes. “Doping” a transistor is where specific impurities are introduced to the crystalline structure of a transistor, an essential process in semiconductor manufacturing that allows the creation of transistors with particular properties. Changing this “Doping” in specific regions means you can change the behaviours of those areas, such as the random number generator.

Don’t be fooled of course, this is some seriously top level hacking, this isn’t something you are going to download in an email, it certainly requires a more hands on approach, most likely at the manufacturing level. It’s also incredibly complicated to the point of not being worth it, you could likely steal a password via other methods quicker and easier, albeit while leaving evidence behind. While Intel chips do contain tests for catching cryptographic manipulations, it isn’t catching out this new one as there have been no modifications to the gates, the changes are literally invisible to microscope they’re that subtle.

Maybe this will spook Intel back to the drawing board to improve the self-checking mechanisms, especially while the backlash of NSA leaks is still in the grip of the global media.

Thank you ExtremeTech for providing us with this information.

Image courtesy of ExtremeTech.


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  • Milen Georgiev

    So basically you have to manufacture the chip vulnerable to this attack, otherwise it doesn’t work – genial…

  • Dave

    @milen_georgiev:disqus Yup that’s right, the potential danger here is that chips are generally mass produced in Asia and were some clever folk able to infiltrate the manufacturing plant they could implement a hack for military, financial e.t.c systems that would under current circumstances be totally invisible. Think Chinese government putting undetectable hacked chips bound for US government computers. Obviously the barrier to entry is very high, but at a government level very possible.