Understanding Hardware Security and the Risks of Hardware Attacks
Cyber attacks are on the rise as technology becomes more sophisticated. As working from home becomes increasingly popular amidst the post-pandemic norm, hackers are able to access more company information than ever before. It takes an average of 280 days to discover and subdue a cybersecurity attack. In the meantime, such attacks can ruin a company’s reputation and jeopardize sensitive financial information.
Software is usually the first thing that springs to mind when we think of hacking. After all, software is the core of computer programs and data that fulfill specific tasks. Accessing software is usually easier for hackers as they do not need to be near the physical device. Hardware hacking is more challenging and includes exposing a security flaw in the physical areas of a computer system. To carry out hardware attacks, hackers must be on-site and have undisturbed access to computers — or at least enough time to insert a tracking device and gain remote access to data. These attacks target machines and other physical systems and include human tampering and destruction.
What is hardware security?
Hardware-based attacks can be far more detrimental as attackers can steal data directly from the hardware that houses encrypted software. Once hackers access physical machines like laptops, phones, routers, or Internet of Things (IoT) devices, they are relatively easy to hack or control. This is because manufacturers rarely update computer hardware, unlike software that has pre-installed or physical updates at regular intervals.
Hardware devices such as servers hold sensitive company information and must be protected. Hardware security protects physical devices from threats that allow unauthorized access to a computer system. Many devices are now interconnected, leaving entire systems vulnerable to attacks. Hardware security also includes physical devices such as a firewall that scans user access points and network traffic.
Types of hardware attacks
Hardware attacks range from implanting malicious software to physically swapping a healthy computer for an infected one, but the end goal is always the same: to steal sensitive, incriminating, or financial information. Here are some common hardware attacks hackers use to torment their victims.
Cybercriminals dream of having direct access to sensitive information — but indirect access can be just as valuable. Side-channel attacks take advantage of inherent leakages like power consumption and are almost impossible to prevent because devices need power to function. The main goal of such attacks is to break intricate cryptographic systems designed to protect information. Side-channel attacks are passive and non-invasive, meaning hackers can cause destruction without even touching a device. Victims of side-channel attacks are often unaware they have been targeted, making this one of the most vicious attacks around.
These malicious attacks interfere with the normal functionality of a device, injecting harmful software that exposes vulnerabilities. Doing so allows hackers to commit man-in-the-middle attacks, where web users are intercepted and redirected to a fake website that looks exactly like the original. Online banking websites are common targets for such attacks, where victims unknowingly enter passwords and PINs that end up in the hands of cybercriminals.
Moreover, hackers may use modification attacks to introduce hardware Trojans, in which harmful hardware is concealed in integrated circuits. Trojans can be placed anywhere in a microchip, for example in a chip’s processor or power supply, making them difficult to identify and locate. Each Trojan’s mission is different. Some alter the functionality of a chip, while others impair performance or leak sensitive information.
Evil maid attacks
Named after a theoretical scenario in which a hotel maid enters a room and steals a laptop or smartphone, these attacks describe hacking through physical access to a device. During these attacks, hackers access and steal data that is not password protected by modifying and compromising the device. Think of these crafty hackers as spies that also install malware, redirecting credentials back to themselves whenever unsuspecting users enter sensitive information.
Examples of evil maid attacks could be logging into a coworker’s computer while they are in a meeting or out for lunch, or physically stealing a device and replacing it with an identical system infected with malware. The infected device then sends passwords and other information back to the hacker. Victims of evil maid attacks are usually politicians or government officials, or large company bosses with access to financial information.
To prevent these attacks, never leave devices unattended, even around coworkers or people you trust. If that is unrealistic, protect devices with strong passwords and set a lock-screen timer.
How well-protected is your company against hardware attacks?
With an increasing number of high-profile cyber attacks, the risk of experiencing a hardware attack is real. Although larger companies have more assets and therefore more for hackers to steal, SMBs may lack the funds to afford a water-tight security system, leaving them open to attacks. With 43% of cyber attacks aimed at SMBs, many company bosses realize that hardware security is a necessary investment to protect personal information from being stolen.
Implementing a robust cyber security strategy is one way to ensure protection from internal and external threats and includes enforcing multiple layers of security. The first step of a cyber security strategy is to analyze the company’s current situation to determine the type of information generated and where it is stored. Next, companies should assess their threat level by listing assets and suppliers, internal and external networks, and cloud networks. Setting strict security goals is paramount to a company’s safety, and working with security experts may highlight vulnerabilities in an existing system.
How can companies protect against hardware attacks?
While hiring a team of security experts is a wise choice, there are many steps companies can take to mitigate potential hardware attacks.
1. Educate employees
People can only work with what they know. Employees cannot protect themselves and the company from cyber attacks if they do not know the risks. Cyber attacks can have devastating consequences, and it is in every company’s best interest to inform employees about security risks. Holding regular security training to teach employees best practices is vital to protect sensitive information. Moreover, sending an email newsletter is a great way to inform workers about cybersecurity trends and common hacks.
2. Create a security policy
Company employees are trusted with large amounts of sensitive data. Moreover, an increasing number of people working from home makes it easier for hackers to stop network vulnerabilities and steal information. Cyber-attacks on home workers have jumped by 238% since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. To alleviate this, employees should follow written practices and procedures known as a security policy. This ensures that confidential data is handled sensitively while reminding employees of the company’s security goals.
3. Build a zero-trust mindset
Instead of assuming everything on a company computer is safe, a zero-trust mindset encourages employees to verify everything and question suspicious behavior. Zero-trust principles include authenticating and authorizing data points such as a user’s identity or location and reducing the time taken to detect and report a data breach. With a zero-trust approach, employees are taught to “never trust, always verify.”
4. Improve hardware security
Secure hardware helps mitigate the risk of cyberattacks. Company bosses should implement strong hardware-based security systems to protect themselves and their employees. Built by silicon partners, Pluton hardware security from Microsoft is a chip-to-cloud security technology integrated directly into a computer’s processor, providing outstanding protection to Windows 11 devices. Pluton protects sensitive data, credentials, and encryption keys, making it impossible for data to be removed even if hackers install malware or have physical possession of a computer.
Over 80% of companies have reported at least one firmware attack within the past two years. Microsoft has worked with OEM partners to develop Secured-Core PCs, an exceptional range of devices designed to protect customers in data-sensitive industries. Secured-Core PCs minimize firmware vulnerabilities with a hardware root of trust while protecting against advanced threats like kernel attacks.
Windows has teamed up with Acer to produce a range of ultra-safe Secured-Core PCs. The cutting-edge TravelMate series delivers enhanced security down to the firmware level, featuring a secure fingerprint reader, IR camera with a privacy shutter, and advanced Windows Hello support. Equipped with extra security measures for data-sensitive scenarios, the PCs offer high-level protection to safeguard every SMB.
5. Use hardware-level protection
The Trusted Platform Module 2.0 (TPM) security chip resides on a PC’s motherboard or within its processor, applying security features to securely store sensitive information. TPM technology includes many layers of security mechanisms and generates and limits the use of cryptographic keys, providing hardware-level protection against malware and sophisticated cyber attacks.
TPM provides first-class security by preventing access to sensitive data such as passwords, certificates, or encryption stored on the chip. Instead, this information is stored on a physical chip separate from the hardware software, staving off hackers and software-based attacks. TPM provides a layer of security for ultimate security protection.
Passwords can be difficult to remember and are vulnerable to cyber-attacks. Windows Hello and Windows Hello for Business are authentication methods designed to replace passwords, combining cryptographic keys with additional information to authenticate users. They use biometric gestures such as fingerprints or facial recognition to access Windows devices. Moreover, Windows Hello for Business uses key or certificate-based authentication, while Windows Hello is unique to the device and uses a password hash.
Windows Hello and Windows Hello for Business are fantastic authentication systems when used with a TPM, and use asymmetric key pairs to protect against various known and potential attacks, including brute-force PIN attacks.
Companies must protect themselves from hardware and software attacks. By following a robust security policy and zero-trust mindset, company employees can protect themselves from potential cyber-attacks. Regular training sessions reiterate the importance of cyber security while keeping employees abreast of recent hacks and phishing methods. Computer systems with advanced cyber security hardware, such as Windows 11 from Microsoft, protect users from hardware attacks at the core. Secure Pluton technology isolates encryption keys and protects sensitive data, even if hackers install malware. Windows Secured-Core PCs from Acer offer advanced protection to prevent unauthorized access to devices and are equipped with a combination of biometric sensors to prevent phishing attacks. Hardware attacks are becoming increasingly sophisticated, but computer systems are, too. Choosing Windows 11 technology ensures the very best protection for your data.
Jeni is a translator and writer based in Taiwan. She is passionate about business development and loves helping companies enter international markets. She is fluent in English, German, and Mandarin Chinese, and combines these with her industry experience to provide practical market entry solutions.