Taxonomy of glitch and side channel attacks

There are a number of things to try when developing such attacks, depending on the device and countermeasures present. We’ll assume that the attacker has possession of several instances of the device and a moderate budget. This limits an attacker to non-invasive and slightly invasive methods.

Timing attacks work at the granularity of entire device operations (request through result) and don’t require any hardware tools. However, hardware may be used to acquire timing information, for example, by using an oscilloscope and counting the clock cycles an operation takes. I call this observation point external since only information about the entire operation (not its intermediate steps) is available. All software, including commonly used applications or operating systems, need to be aware of timing attacks when working with secrets. The first published timing attack was against RSA, but any kind of CPU access to secret data can reveal information about that data (e.g., cache misses.)

A common misconception is that noise alone can prevent timing attacks. Boneh et al disproved this handily when they mounted timing attacks against OpenSSL over a WAN. If there is noise, just take more measurements. Since noise is random but the key is constant, noise tends to average out the greater your sample size.

Power, EM, thermal, and audio side channel attacks measure more detailed internal behavior throughout an operation. If the intermediate state of an operation is visible in a timing attack, I classify it as an internal side channel attack as well (e.g., Percival’s cache timing attack.) The granularity of measurement is important. Thus, thermal and audio attacks are less powerful given the slow response of the signal compared to the speed of the computation. In other words, they have built-in averaging.

Simple side channel attacks (i.e. SPA) involve observing differences of behavior within a single sample. The difference in height of the peaks of power consumption during a DES operation might indicate the number of 1 bits in the key for that particular round. Since most crypto is based on an iterative model, similarities and differences between each iteration directly reflect the secret data being processed.

Differential side channel attacks (i.e. DPA) are quite a bit different. Instead of requiring an observable, repeatable difference in behavior, any slight variation in behavior can be leveraged using statistics and knowledge of cipher structure. It would take an entire series of articles to explain the various forms of DPA, but I’ll summarize by saying that DPA can automatically extract keys from traces that individually appear completely random.

Glitch attacks (aka fault induction) involve deliberately inducing an error in hardware behavior. They are usually non-invasive but occasionally partially invasive. If power lines are accessible, the power supply can be subjected to a momentary excessive voltage or a brown-out. Removing decoupling capacitors can magnify this effect. If IO lines are accessible, they can be subjected to high-frequency analog signals in an attempt to corrupt the logic behind the IO buffer. But usually these approaches can be prevented by careful engineering.

Most glitch attacks use the clock line since it is especially critical to chip operation. In addition to over-voltage, complex high-frequency waveforms can induce interesting behavior. Flip-flops and latches have a timing parameter called “setup and hold” which indicates how long a 0 or 1 bit needs to be applied before the hardware can remember the bit. High frequency waveforms at the edge of this limit cause some flip-flops to register a new value (possibly random) and others to keep their old value. Natural manufacturing variances mean this is impossible to prevent. Pulse, triangle, and sawtooth waveforms provide more possibilities for variation.

Optical and EM glitch attacks induce faults using radiation. Optical attacks are partially invasive in that the chip has to be partially removed from its package (decapping). EM attacks can usually penetrate the housing. The nice thing about this glitching approach is that individual areas of the chip can be targeted, like RAM which is particularly vulnerable to bit flips. Optical attacks can be done using a flash bulb or laser pointer.

With more resources, tools like FIB workstations become available. These allow for fully invasive attacks, where the silicon is modified or tapped at various places to extract information or induce insecure behavior. Such tools are available (Ross Anderson’s group has been using one since the mid 90’s) but are generally not used by the hobbyist hacker community.