What is Firmware, and how does it work?
People interact with most computers primarily with the hardware and top-level software. However, between the hardware and the software, there is a third layer in computers. Firmware serves as a link between the hardware and software of a computer. Many of the low-level, hardware-specific elements of how a computer works are abstracted away, making it easier to build software and execute the same software on many computers.
Why is Firmware Security Important?
Because the firmware is installed beneath software, it is difficult to secure it without a dedicated solution. Implementing such a solution, on the other hand, can bring several advantages to an IoT device manufacturer, including:
• Customer Confidence:
Consumers want to think that their devices are safe from hackers and that their personal information is appropriately protected. A manufacturer may provide a far greater guarantee of safety and security to its customers by including security into the firmware level of IoT devices.
• Competitive Advantage:
Because there are no IoT cybersecurity laws or standards, many IoT manufacturers do not prioritize security. Implementing and promoting an IoT device’s robust security posture can provide a considerable competitive advantage, especially as cybersecurity and data privacy becomes an increasingly visible and critical concern for customers.
• Regulatory Compliance:
While IoT security policy is behind the times, certain countries are working hard to implement legislation. The impact of these laws on a manufacturer’s future activities can be mitigated by implementing solid security policies ahead of time.
• Expanded Market Reach:
Certain sectors have strict cyber security requirements for the equipment that can be used to process potentially sensitive data on their networks. An IoT device manufacturer can achieve these standards and compete in these markets by implementing firmware security.
• Device Security Management:
IoT devices are notoriously difficult to monitor and control for their users, leaving them vulnerable to exploits. Device security and upgrades can be controlled centrally using a cloud-based platform with a firmware security solution.
• Integrated Security:
Because of the specific security requirements of IoT devices, many traditional cybersecurity solutions are incompatible with them. Better monitoring and administration of these devices is possible with a firmware security solution that is part of an integrated security platform.
Implementing IoT Firmware Security
For securing IoT devices, Check Point recommends a three-step process. Identifying the potentially exploitable vulnerabilities present on an IoT device is the first step in this process. Check Point offers a free IoT vulnerability assessment to assist IoT device manufacturers with this phase.
Hardening IoT devices against cyber threats are the next step in the process. Implementing IoT firmware security is a critical aspect of this step. CheckPoint’s IoT Protect Nano Agent secures IoT devices at the firmware level and offers several advantages, including:
• Runtime Protection
• Protection Against Zero-Day Attacks
• No Source Code Necessary
• Complete Firmware Coverage
• Easy Installation
• Minimal Performance Impacts
Controlling the device’s cybersecurity is the final step in the IoT device security procedure. It is possible to handle updates and other security management for IoT devices via a cloud-based online portal using IoT Protect Nano Agent, which has a natural interaction with Check Point Infinity.
Check out Check Point’s IoT firmware risk assessment to examine the security risk of your IoT devices. Please don’t hesitate to request a demo of IoT Safeguard Nano Agent to understand how to easily and successfully protect your IoT devices once you have a comprehensive picture of your potential cybersecurity risks and attack vectors.
Types and Examples of Firmware
The firmware instructs the processor to start the starting process when the device is turned on. To conduct operations such as loading their operating systems, computers, mobile phones, and tablets use several types of firmware. Firmware works in the same way that device drivers do. Drivers are placed in the device’s operating system, whereas firmware is stored directly on the hardware device. Drivers are still reliant on the operating system, while firmware can start up on its own.
Firmware is usually divided into three levels:
1. Low-level firmware is stored in non-volatile memory chips such as read-only memory (ROM) and one-time programmable (OTP) memory. The firmware on these chips can’t be changed or updated, and it’s part of the hardware, like a computer.
2. High-level firmware: This firmware is installed on flash memory chips and contains more complex instructions that allow for firmware updates.
3. Subsystems: These are devices that are semi-independent yet are part of a larger system. Firmware is found in central processing units (CPUs), flash chips, and liquid crystal display (LCD) devices at this level.
The firmware/system section of the drive is not accessible during typical drive operation and hence is inaccessible to the average user or the operating system. On the PCB controller board, there is an initial piece of the drive firmware. This is then in charge of loading the platter firmware/system area, allowing for complete functionality. All parts of the internal hard drive’s functionality are controlled by disc firmware. When the system is turned on, the firmware controls the disc startup / self-check routine, which puts the drive in a ready state that allows the host computer to load an operating system. During operation, the firmware ensures that the hard drive is performing properly, allowing it to communicate properly with other components in the system (e.g. the operating system).
The majority of drives’ firmware is made up of four modules: P-list, G-list, SMART Attributes, and U-List (Firmware Zone Translator). Each of these serves a vital purpose. Defect control is an example function; no disc is created without faults, and certain sectors on the drive will be unusable. These defects are recorded in the disc firmware as the ‘P’ (permanent/main / production) list at the time of production. Other sectors may fail as the disc ages and wear out; this is documented in the ‘G’ (growth) list. The drive electronics automatically bypass P-list and G-list sectors, so drive sector access times are not slowed.
We can hide/make visible data on the hard disc by adding or removing sectors from the P-list and/or G-list. The disc handles this procedure transparently and occurs ‘behind’ the operating system via the two lists, P-list and G-list. These discs’ firmware could break. On some disc models, the G-list may become full, causing the disc to stop operating. While the disc is physically healthy and all user data is intact, a firmware fault can prohibit it from being accessed.
To date, there are only a few tools available for performing firmware repairs or modifications. A variety of free / shareware tools claim to be able to read some parts of the firmware, notably the disc model and serial number. However, these tools do not provide enough control over the firmware to allow for fixes or exploits. Both systems are made up of a mix of hardware and software. One very complex gadget, which originated in Russia and costs around $4000, is made in that country.
The whole Russian tool package costs around $15,000 and includes the capacity to extract data and deal with various solid-state devices and SCSI discs. A more readily available gadget is available from China and may be purchased for roughly $350 per disc maker through resellers in Europe. A qualified user could use either of these tools to alter firmware to hide data or code from the hard disc drive itself. There are several circumstances in which this technology could be abused. By manipulating faulty sectors or leveraging the firmware defect control system, an individual can employ disc firmware steganography to conceal information within the drive.
Another option is to place malware on the drive to prevent the disc from ever functioning properly again by attacking distinct essential portions of the firmware, depriving a user or forensic investigator of access to any data. This type of exploit would be created and targeted against certain discs and systems, acting as a sophisticated form of sabotage that might leave the contents of the drive unrecoverable. Manipulation of firmware can have a big impact on the forensic procedure. In a standard forensic image, data that has been disguised utilizing firmware steganography techniques will not be visible for examination. Any forensic photographs obtained from the hard disc drive will be impossible to obtain if malware targets and corrupts the firmware.
As previously stated, current forensics technologies do not identify this form of manipulation, necessitating the use of specialized equipment and expertise to detect it. However, even if an investigator has been trained in this field and has the necessary tools, he or she would confront several challenges. The investigator would need to be able to analyze the authenticity of the firmware to determine if it has been tampered with, either to conceal information or as a result of malware targeting and corrupting the firmware.
The investigator would need to compare the drive to a comparable disc and maybe employ crucial firmware modules, even hardware components, from the donor drive to ensure the firmware is genuine or to allow the original drive to be repaired to a fully working state to facilitate forensic examination. For comparison and repair of defective mechanical parts, this endeavor would necessitate a large library of firmware/donor drives. This library would be tough to put up because donor drives are often difficult to come by and match due to rigorous compatibility requirements that vary greatly by manufacturer.