A Chip to Protect the Internet of Things

Microchip’s AWS-ECC508 bakes in secure communications

3 min read

Image: iStockphoto
Image: iStockphoto

The Internet of Things offers the promise of all sorts of nifty gadgets, but each connected device is also a tempting target for hackers. As recent cybersecurity incidents have shown, IoT devices can be harnessed to wreak havoc or compromise the privacy of their owners. So Microchip Technology and Amazon.com have collaborated to create an add-on chip that’s designed to make it easier to combat certain types of attack—and, of course, encourage developers to use Amazon’s cloud-based infrastructure for the Internet of Things.

The AWS-ECC508 is an add-on chip designed to make devices more secure—at least for developers using Amazon’s IoT cloud. Cloud services are an integral part of the Internet of Things, which is built around the concept of connected objects becoming ubiquitous in our environment, and which must therefore rely on large-scale computing infrastructure.

For example, a smart lightbulb might upload its state to a cloud service operated by the lightbulb maker, and that information would update the lightbulb owner’s smartphone app the next time the app is opened. The owner could then use the app to turn the lightbulb on or off as desired, sending the command via the cloud service.

The problem here is that this chain from device to owner and back again represents a potential opening for spoofing attacks: If an attacker successfully fools the cloud service into believing that a fake stream of information is coming from the lightbulb, then the owner could be fed incorrect information, and the attacker may be able to exploit the entry point into the cloud service for even deeper attacks. If the lightbulb is successfully fooled into believing a fake connection is coming from the cloud, then the attacker not only has control of whether or not the lightbulb is on or off but could also plant hostile malware inside the owner’s network.

And unfortunately, IoT device manufacturers have been slow to address the problem, primarily “because they are always very sensitive about the cost” of adding better security, explains Microchip engineer Eustace Asanghanwa. “And this is especially true of manufacturers of products who do not see their products as critical. For example, if they are just making a lightbulb [they think] it’s not a critical component. If it fails, nobody is going to be harmed. But the truth of it is that once the device is connected, it’s not just the value of the device anymore that’s at stake. It’s the value of what that device is connected to,” says Asanghanwa.

The AWS-ECC508 is designed to provide end-to-end security between the IoT device and the cloud infrastructure. It does this by leveraging Amazon’s mutual authentication system, which verifies the identity of the cloud service and the device before any data or commands are accepted. The identities are based on cryptographic keys. Until now, creating such cryptographic identities relied on the original manufacturer—typically a contract manufacturer working for a device company—securely generating the keys and then passing the keys securely along the manufacturing chain. Instead, the AWS-ECC508 can generate its own keys that Amazon will accept as authentic.

As suggested by its name, the AWS-ECC508 relies on an “elliptic curve cryptography” algorithm rather than the better known RSA algorithm, which underpins much of the security on today’s Internet. “In embedded systems, RSA is very expensive: The key size is very big, and the processes are expensive in terms of power consumption and the time it takes to complete a transaction.... ECC happens to be more efficient and uses less bits, which means less computing resources,” says Asanghanwa. The chip is also designed to protect against hardware attacks, such as removing the casing to probe the circuitry or operating it outside normal operating voltages.

For IoT hardware creators looking to experiment with the AWS-ECC508, developer kits are available, and the chip costs around 68 U.S. cents in bulk.

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