The Unpatchable Silicon: A Full Break of the Bitstream Encryption of Xilinx 7-Series FPGAs

Maik Ender, Amir Moradi, Chris­tof Paar

29th USENIX Security Symposium (USENIX Security 20), Boston, MA, USA, August 12-14, 2020.


Abstract

The security of FPGAs is a crucial topic, as any vulnerability within the hardware can have severe consequences, if they are used in a secure design. Since FPGA designs are encoded in a bitstream, securing the bitstream is of the utmost importance. Adversaries have many motivations to recover and manipulate the bitstream, including design cloning, IP theft, manipulation of the design, or design subversions e.g., through hardware Trojans. Given that FPGAs are often part of cyber-physical systems e.g., in aviation, medical, or industrial devices, this can even lead to physical harm. Consequently, vendors have introduced bitstream encryption, offering authenticity and confidentiality. Even though attacks against bitstream encryption have been proposed in the past, e.g., side-channel analysis and probing, these attacks require sophisticated equipment and considerable technical expertise.

In this paper, we introduce novel low-cost attacks against the Xilinx 7-Series (and Virtex-6) bitstream encryption, resulting in the total loss of authenticity and confidentiality. We exploit a design flaw which piecewise leaks the decrypted bitstream. In the attack, the FPGA is used as a decryption oracle, while only access to a configuration interface is needed. The attack does not require any sophisticated tools and, depending on the target system, can potentially be launched remotely. In addition to the attacks, we discuss several countermeasures.

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