Rooting Out Malware With a Side-Channel Chip Defense System

A new software-agnostic malware detection tool detects cyberattacks by their power consumption

Photo: John Lamb/Getty Images

The world of malware has been turned on its head this week, as a company in Virginia has introduced a new cybersecurity technology that at first glance looks more like a classic cyberattack. 

The idea hatched by PFP Cybersecurity of Vienna, Va., is taken from the playbook of a famous cryptography-breaking scheme called the side channel attack. All malware, no matter the details of its code, authorship, or execution, must consume power. And, as PFP has found, the signature of malware’s power usage looks very different from the baseline power draw of a chip’s standard operations.

So this week, PFP is announcing a two-pronged technology (called P2Scan and eMonitor) that physically sits outside the CPU and sniffs the chip’s electromagnetic leakage for telltale signatures of power consumption patterns indicating abnormal behavior.

The result, they say, is a practically undetectable, all-purpose malware discovery protocol, especially for low-level systems that follow a predictable and standard routine. (Computers with users regularly attached to them, like laptops and smartphones, often have no baseline routine from which abnormal behavior can be inferred. So, PFP officials say, their technology is at the moment better suited to things like routers, networks, power grids, critical infrastructure, and other more automated systems.)

“On average, malware exists on a system for 229 days before anyone ever notices anything is there,” Thurston Brooks, PFP’s vice president of engineering and product marketing told IEEE Spectrum. “What’s really cool about our system is we tell you within milliseconds that something has happened.”

PFP—an acronym for “power fingerprinting”—requires that its users establish a firm baseline of normal operations for the chips the company will be monitoring. So they begin with P2Scan, a credit-card-size physical sensor that monitors a given chip, board, device, embedded system, or network router for its electromagnetic fingerprints when running normally.

Unlike most malware strategies in the marketplace today, PFP takes a strikingly software-agnostic tack to besting malware, hardware Trojans, and other cyberattacks.

“We’re not trying to actually understand what’s going on inside the machine, like the hackers are,” says Brooks. “We’re trying to define what normal behavior looks like. Then, knowing [that], we can detect abnormal behavior.”

The view of malware as seen from outside the chip, in other words, can be a refreshing one. Hackers can’t detect this type of surveillance, because the scanning tools never actually interact with the chip’s operations. And hackers can be as clever as the most sophisticated programmers in the world. Yet, their code will still very likely be detected because, simply by virtue of performing different tasks than the chip normally performs, it will have a different power profile.

“I am a signal processing guy,” says PFP president Jeff Reed, who is also a professor in the ECE department at Virginia Tech. “Our approach is a very different approach than a person who’s normally schooled in security…We’re trying to understand a disturbance in the signal due to the inclusion of malware.”

Reed and Brooks also point out that counterfeit chips are a vast problem in IT, as Spectrum has documented in recent years. By the FBI’s estimates, for instance, chip counterfeiting costs U.S. businesses some $200 to $250 billion annually.

The problem is just as daunting for the U.S. military, as Spectrum has also chronicled. For example, an investigation by the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services uncovered counterfeit components in the supply chains for the CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter, C-17 military transport aircraft, P-8A Poseidon sub hunter and F-16 fighter jet.

The problems were expensive but ultimately rooted out. Yet other dangers remain—especially in such high-security realms, where substandard components could endanger troops and missions, or compromised chips could be used to carry out malicious plots.

But any compromised chip—whether hardware-Trojan-laden or part of a single lot of subpar chips coming from the foundry—can be discovered using their system, PFP says.

The trick, says Brooks, is to grab a sample chip from a lot and perform a (typically expensive) decapping, x-ray analysis, and reverse-engineering of the chip’s code. Then, once it’s been confirmed that the chip works as designed and is within spec, it is run through a standard operation, providing an electromagnetic baseline for P2Scan and eMonitor.

Every other chip in the lot can then be rapidly and cheaply tested against the “gold standard” chip by running the same standard operation and comparing the resulting electromagnetic signature to that of the first chip.

“You determine whether you have a good chip or not,” Brooks says. “You only spend the money to do that on one chip…So you amortize the cost of the forensics across all the chips. So if you have a few million chips, you’re talking about a few pennies [per chip] to do the whole thing—and know that you have a million chips that are all good.”

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IEEE Spectrum’s risk analysis blog, featuring daily news, updates and analysis on computing and IT projects, software and systems failures, successes and innovations, security threats, and more.