Why Firmware Security Matters: Common Vulnerabilities and Best Practices to Stay Safe
The term “firmware” usually refers to the low-level software that runs on electronic devices, such as computers and smartphones. Unlike more familiar software, firmware is often invisible to users and is not generally replaceable. Because of its hidden nature, firmware can be a prime target for hackers looking to exploit vulnerabilities in order to gain access to devices or steal information. Here we’ll look at some of the most common firmware vulnerabilities and discuss some of the best firmware security practices to defend against firmware hacking.
What Is Firmware?
It is a type of software that is embedded into a hardware device. Firmware provides low-level control for the device and is typically not user-accessible. Manufacturers sometimes release firmware updates to fix bugs or add new features to the device.
Firmware is stored in non-volatile memory, which means it retains its data even when the device’s power is turned off. In contrast, volatile memory requires power to maintain its data.
Common examples of devices that contain firmware are BIOS chips on motherboards and the firmware for hard drives, optical drives, and other storage devices.
What Is a Firmware Update?
A firmware update is a software program that can be used to update the firmware of a hardware device, which may also be necessary to fix security vulnerabilities in the device.
Firmware updates are typically provided as a downloadable file that can be installed on the device using a special utility program. In some cases, the firmware update may also be available as a bootable CD or USB drive.
Firmware Security Threats
As electronic devices have become ubiquitous in people’s personal and professional lives, the security of the firmware that controls them has become increasingly important. Firmware is the low-level software programmed into a device’s read-only memory (ROM) and controls its basic functions.
While the firmware in most devices is not exposed to users or attackers, it can be reverse-engineered and modified to create malicious versions that can be used to gain control of the device or its data. This type of attack is known as a firmware exploit. It can be used to perform a variety of malicious actions, such as installing malware, stealing sensitive data, or taking control of the device remotely.
Firmware security threats are becoming more common as the capabilities of devices continue to increase. As more and more devices are connected to the internet and used to store sensitive data, the risks posed by firmware exploits will only increase.
There are a few different ways that attackers can exploit firmware vulnerabilities, leading to firmware hacking:
- The most common method is to reverse engineer the device’s software in order to find and exploit any security weaknesses. This can be a time-consuming and difficult process, but it is often possible to find publicly available tools that automate much of the work.
- Another approach is to target devices that use outdated or unpatched versions of firmware. These devices may not have the latest security features and patches, making them easier to exploit. Attackers can also take advantage of known vulnerabilities in specific firmware versions to develop and publish exploit code that anyone can use.
- Finally, some attackers may try to physically modify the device’s firmware in order to bypass security controls or install malicious code. This type of firmware hacking is usually only possible if the attacker has physical access to the device, but it can be difficult to detect and prevent (Solid State Systems LLC, 2017).
Firmware Security Best Practices
Firmware security is a critical part of overall device security. By taking a few simple steps, organizations can make their devices more resistant to attack and less likely to be compromised.
Buffer and stack overflow protection, injection prevention, firmware updates and cryptographic signatures, and securing sensitive information are all important aspects of firmware security. By taking measures to protect each of these areas, organizations can make their devices much more secure.
- Buffer and Stack Overflow Protection
One of the most common ways attackers gain access to systems is by exploiting buffer or stack overflows. By ensuring that your firmware has proper buffer and stack overflow protection in place, you can help to prevent firmware hacking.
- Firmware Updates and Cryptographic SignaturesKeeping your firmware up to date is critical to maintaining the security of your device. By ensuring that updates are properly installed and that cryptographic signatures are in place, you can increase the security of your devices.
- Preventing Injection AttacksInjection attacks are another common attack that can be prevented through proper firmware security. By taking measures to prevent injection, you can help to keep your devices safe.
- Capture Security ExceptionsCapturing security exceptions is important in order to immediately identify and address potential vulnerabilities in your code. This helps to ensure that any issues are caught and fixed as quickly as possible before attackers can exploit them.
- Input ValidationInput validation is another crucial step in keeping your firmware secure. Carefully validating all user input can help to prevent malicious users from injecting malicious code into your systems. This helps to protect your systems against common attacks, such as SQL injection attacks.
- Security Code ReviewsRegular security code reviews are essential to identify any potential security issues in your code. It helps ensure that vulnerabilities are found and fixed as quickly as possible. Additionally, code reviews help improve your code’s overall quality, making it more robust and less likely to contain security vulnerabilities.
- Data Collection Usage and Storage – PrivacyFinally, it is important to consider how data is collected, used, and stored. In particular, data should be collected and used in a way that respects the privacy of individuals. By taking these steps, you can create a more secure and private user environment (Raducu, 2022).
If you’re interested in becoming a certified penetration testing professional, the EC-Council’s C|PENT program is a great place to start. With this certification, you’ll be able to show potential employers that you have the skills and knowledge necessary to conduct effective penetration tests.
Solid State Systems LLC. Firmware Security Vulnerabilities and How to Prevent Them. http://solidsystemsllc.com/firmware-security/
Raducu, R. Best Practices to Ensure Your Device Is Secure by Design – Firmware. NeuronicWorks. https://neuronicworks.com/blog/firmware-security/
About the Author
Ryan Clancy is a writer and blogger. With 5+ years of mechanical engineering experience, he’s passionate about all things engineering and tech. He also loves bringing engineering (especially mechanical) down to a level that everyone can understand. Ryan lives in New York City and writes about everything engineering and tech.