Security Experts:

Energy Management Systems Expose Devices to Attacks

Researchers have demonstrated a new class of fault attacks possible due to the poor security design of energy management systems present in most modern computing devices.

Energy management is an important feature of modern computers, particularly in the case of mobile devices, as it helps increase battery life, improve portability and reduce costs. However, since designing such systems is not an easy task, focus has been placed on efficiency and security has often been neglected.

At the recent USENIX Security Symposium, a team of experts from Columbia University presented an attack method they have dubbed “CLKscrew.” They showed how a malicious actor could exploit the lack of security mechanisms in energy management systems to carry out a remote attack and obtain sensitive data.

The research has focused on the ARMv7 architecture – a Nexus 6 smartphone was used in experiments – but the CLKscrew attack likely also works against other devices and architectures. The energy management system analyzed by the researchers is the widely used dynamic voltage and frequency scaling (DVFS).

The CLKscrew attack shows how a remote hacker could use a malicious kernel driver loaded onto the targeted device to exploit security weaknesses in DVFS and breach the ARM Trustzone, a hardware-based security technology built into system-on-chips (SoCs).

Experts demonstrated how an attacker can use the method to extract secret crypto keys from Trustzone, and escalate privileges by loading self-signed code into Trustzone.

Researchers believe this type of attack is much more efficient than attacks involving physical access to the targeted device due to the fact that it can be carried out remotely and it bypasses many of the requirements and barriers of a physical attack, such as the need for soldering equipment and the ability to overcome existing physical defenses.

“CLKscrew is the tip of the iceberg: more security vulnerabilities are likely to surface in emerging energy optimization techniques, such as finer-grained controls, distributed control of voltage and frequency islands, and near/sub-threshold optimizations,” researchers said in their paper.

“Our analysis suggests that there is unlikely to be a single, simple fix, or even a piecemeal fix, that can entirely prevent CLKscrew style attacks. Many of the design decisions that contribute to the success of the attack are supported by practical engineering concerns,” they added. “In other words, the root cause is not a specific hardware or software bug but rather a series of well-thought-out, nevertheless security-oblivious, design decisions.”

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Eduard Kovacs is an international correspondent for SecurityWeek. He worked as a high school IT teacher for two years before starting a career in journalism as Softpedia’s security news reporter. Eduard holds a bachelor’s degree in industrial informatics and a master’s degree in computer techniques applied in electrical engineering.