Embedded Security

Embedded security is perhaps one of the biggest concerns nowadays for both small and large businesses. This is because cybersecurity threats account for the majority of security concerns for businesses today. With businesses becoming increasingly reliant on virtual databases, it is not just the company’s data that is at threat but also that of its customers and shareholders.

As embedded security becomes a buzzword, many other vital terms related to embedded systems have also come to light. One of these is embedded systems security. However, understanding the concept of embedded systems is crucial before learning what embedded security is.

What Are Embedded Systems?

An embedded system is a combination of computer memory, computer processing, and input/output devices (peripheral devices) designed to serve a specific purpose within a larger electronic system. Such systems are called so because they are embedded as a component of a complete, larger device, sometimes containing electrical/electronic hardware as well as mechanical components. They manage dedicated operations as part of the larger device.

Today, embedded systems are in use in almost all industries, from household appliances to military and aerospace. Common consumer electronics like televisions, mobile phones, and smartwatches all contain embedded systems, as does medical equipment like MRI, CT, and PET scan machines. Nowadays, embedded systems use microcontrollers, microprocessors with peripheral interfaces, and integrated memory.

Reliability Of An Embedded System

Embedded systems are designed to run continuously without error for several years and sometimes resolve any technical issue themselves. However, they may still have some reliability issues that would need manual efforts to resolve.

Reliability issues in any embedded system indicate that it is not an easy task to remove faults from it once it is installed and starts running. These faults also include security issues. Therefore, building intrinsic security in embedded systems is crucial to avoid such issues and installing a secure system.

What Is Embedded System Security?

Given the crucial role of embedded systems, they are a prime target for cyber attackers. With a focused cyber attack, attackers can hack into and access the system and the data created, processed, and received by them.

Embedded systems not only work as part of a larger system but are also connected to several other such systems. This means that an attack on one such system can have dire consequences on the functioning of the entire system and other individual mechanisms.

Embedded system security is a field of general cyber security that targets the prevention and solution of malicious activities, suspicious behavior, and other cyber threats in embedded systems.

Embedded security practices try to find the best and most efficient methods to build foolproof security for both the software and hardware of the secure embedded system. One such issue may be that the system is inaccessible and difficult to repair. In some cases, the situation may have to be kept running for safety reasons and can risk the loss of larger amounts of finances if shut down.

Challenges Of Embedded Security

Building security for embedded systems is not an easy task. An example of the challenges faced when installing embedded security is the size of the system. The hardware components of embedded systems, particularly, are very small in size, often installed with other components on a single chip or board. This makes installing a security system within the component a huge technical and design challenge.

Implementing embedded security in any business needs to be unified and standardized to prevent technical issues from taking root in the future. There are several other challenging factors to be considered.

Threats Due To Network Connectivity

Regardless of the size of an institution and its systems, all modern digital systems are connected to the Internet. Especially with the rise of 5G internet, the amount of sensitive data affiliated with and available on the net will continue increasing. This has made a lot of valuable information prone to cyber-attacks. Since embedded devices are connected directly to the Internet, the role of the institution’s normal security system in protecting these devices becomes negligible. Therefore, each device needs to have an inbuilt security system within itself.

Lacking Standardization

Despite the increasing role of cyber security systems, there is a lack of standardized procedures and regulations. This makes it difficult for system manufacturers, installers, and experts to understand the functionality of a component concerning the system and devices it will be interacting with.

A technical issue like this can significantly hinder the efficient working of a component. This lack of standardized rules makes it difficult for business owners to judge whether the quality of their embedded applications and security systems is up to the mark.

Components From Third-Parties

Digital systems of many institutions use embedded system components manufactured and supplied by third parties. The primary issue with this practice is that these components could be easily altered to include malware or some other security threat. These threats are not easily detected, and without proper embedded security, it may even be impossible to detect them until it is too late.

Other Issues

A big problem that puts an institution at cybersecurity risks is the use of out-of-date software. Keeping up with new software updates is imperative not only for the smooth running of the systems but also to maintain the strength of its cyber defense systems.

Another key element that can compromise the security of embedded systems is that such systems are usually manufactured on a mass scale. This means that a manufacturing fault that results in malware or vulnerability toward cyber-attacks will attack not only one but all systems that use a unit from the faulty batch.

Hence, if an institution uses embedded devices from a specific manufacturer in all its systems, its complete security is badly compromised and vulnerable to cyber-attacks.

Benefits Of Embedded Systems Security

Embedded systems security is the need of the hour; it needs to be implemented regardless of the size of the business or organization. Apart from the obvious benefit of protection against cyber threats, installing embedded security has several other advantages.

Integrated Security

Some business owners might believe that opting for traditional cyber security practices is enough to ensure maximum protection for the organization’s systems. However, certain resource constraints may make executing traditional cybersecurity techniques a hassle. The use of embedded security resolves this issue as it allows one to monitor the concerned devices quickly and efficiently to deal with the problem.

Customer Trust

The biggest reason why businesses need to invest in a decent cyber and embedded security market is to maintain their customers’ confidence in them. When deciding to invest in, share stakes with, or do business with an institution, customers also consciously choose to share their valuable data. Without adequately secure databases, customer data is at risk of cyber-attacks. A cyber attack on an organization’s databases that steals this precious data will negatively affect the business’s reputation and do irreparable damage to customer trust.

Better Market Accessibility

Some industries have very specific digital system requirements. For example, military sectors and government institutions are very strict about who can connect to their networks. Hence they need to monitor these digital activities on their systems vigilantly. However, installing decent embedded system security will allow IT and security experts to meet these specific requirements more easily and efficiently.

Device Security Management

It is often quite difficult to monitor and regulate an embedded system. A well-rounded embedded system security plan can also solve this problem. Incorporating such solutions in an embedded system will open access to cloud-based platforms, allowing for far simpler and more effective device security management.

Other Benefits

Although cyber and embedded security laws and manufacturing regulations are not very common right now, certain sectors are abiding by them and will continue to expand in the near future. Installing many embedded systems security will help an organization take the first step toward standardization and better understand the third-party manufacturer’s efforts to comply with the standardized procedures.

Furthermore, an organization’s security systems can determine its position in the market and among competitors. As mentioned above, procedures and guidelines relating to embedded systems security are largely unregulated and undefined.

As a result, several security manufacturers do not focus on or prioritize security. However, by employing foolproof and adequate embedded security, manufacturers can differentiate themselves from competitors that are less focused on security.

Best Practices For Secure Embedded Systems

The security of embedded systems should be a holistic process that considers all necessary factors and requirements. An ideal embedded security process should follow all cyber security standards and understand the individual client’s situation and current needs. Hence, there are certain best practices that security experts and embedded system manufacturers can follow to ensure a well-rounded security installation.

Business owners, security system manufacturers, and installers must remember that embedded security can not depend on software or hardware. Instead, it is a hardware-software partnership. No matter how security-aware and advanced an operating software is, it needs appropriate hardware to ensure maximum protection.

Using Microkernel OS

A microkernel OS is a smaller version of normal operating software and contains a portion of its features. It has a very small kernel space with features like user space-provided file systems, network stacks, and drivers. As a result, microkernel operating software has much less code than a regular OS.

Less code means that the area vulnerable to cyber-attacks is reduced significantly, and security is increased. Even in case of an attack, the perpetrator, even after hours of work, can only damage one component at a time, which not only secures the system at large but also allows more time for the security teams to shut out and deal with the attack.

Appropriate Partitioning Of Hardware Resources

One of the biggest embedded security mistakes a firm can make is to network all its hardware resources together. In this situation, an attack can easily propagate from one component to another and risk the entire institution’s system security. Therefore, it is crucial to ensure that each hardware component, such as network interfaces, processors, memory, and cache, should all serve their purposes as independently as possible.

Protect Resting Data

It is not just data actively flowing through the systems that need to be detected, but also the one stored. This may include configuration files, passwords, security keys, and sensitive software. Stored data is, in fact, one of the primary targets of hackers when attacking embedded devices. The best way to do this is by encrypting this data. Use private security keys to encrypt stored data to protect and lock it in security hardware built specifically for this purpose.

Using Secure Boot

When the embedded device starts in a secure boot, the boot image will be verified via a public key and cryptographic algorithms. Secure boot ensures that the boot-time software has not been meddled with or altered and that the boot sequence is correct.

In some situations, symmetric key cryptography can also be employed. This option is optimum for time-sensitive cases as it speeds up the code verification process. However, unlike the public key verification process, the symmetric key is to remain confidential, known only to the computer itself.

Protection Of Encrypted Data

Protecting sensitive data on embedded devices needs to be prioritized because it is most vulnerable to cyber threats. It should be protected using multiple layers of authentication. Only devices and users with the necessary authorization should be allowed to access this data. Similarly, embedded devices can be personalized using unique, private hardware keys or integrity protection modules (IPM).

Trusted Execution Environment (TEE)

A trusted execution environment (TEE), also known as a hardware security zone, allows hardware-enforced isolation in a secure area in the main processor. A TEE allows verified applications to run security-critical operations on behalf of the embedded system.

It may operate in a certain region of the processor or on a segregated and isolated processing unit core. An example of trusted execution environment usage is the execution of user authentication in a separate area, allowing for increased protection of confidential data.

Validation Of Inputs

Embedded systems should be able to validate and verify all input data from external sources. Whether the data comes from trusted sources or otherwise, a dedicated system should sanitize it thoroughly and verify its authenticity before propagating it to the rest of the concerned software and hardware components.

Any communication between an embedded system and the external world should be encrypted, authenticated, and trusted. Every device connected to a network should have unique and private keys, as well as identifiers that are certified. These elements enable a device to verify itself to a cloud or channel directly or through a security gateway and also allow secure client verification. Rolling keys can also be used.

These steps for validating inputs and connectivity can help prevent attackers from impersonating devices present on a cloud and allow more secure communication networks.

End-To-End Embedded Systems Security

In previous times, embedded security implementation was a process considered separate from the designing and installation process of embedded devices. However, today, security needs to be in-built and incorporated into the system.

This is where end-to-end security comes in. End-to-end security means incorporating security measures during the drafting, designing, and programming phases of the system’s architecture. This can be done by various methods and steps.

Fault-Tolerant Capabilities In Embedded Systems

Fault-inducing attacks are one of the most popular methods cyber attackers use to damage or steal from embedded systems. In such an attack, the hacker injects faults in the embedded device to try and create errors in the system’s functionality. Certain techniques during the designing process can help reduce the cybersecurity risks of such attacks.

Manufacturers can build protective shields around the most sensitive parts of the device to secure them from meddling by an unauthorized person. The device should also be able to detect fluctuations in current, voltage, and other technical measurements and react to these changes accordingly. After the manufacturing process, certain important operations should be repeated to test and note various outputs to make future detection of faults easier.

The introduction of random behavior can also be a handy fault injection-prevention technique. This can be done by incorporating random, small delays in certain crucial processing operations so that attackers can not predict their timing. Thus, hackers will be unable to decide a path of operation or carry out timing attacks.

Do Not Neglect Hardware Components

Most people assume that only software security features are responsible for embedded security. But this can not be further from the truth. Robust security in hardware components is just as important in ensuring holistic protection for embedded systems and reducing susceptibility to cyber-attacks.

Certain hardware components can aid the software in offering specialized security features such as encryption of file systems and detection of anomalies in system calls. On-chip security solutions can help ensure secure booting and better management of cryptography processes.

Protect Your Operating System

Businesses and system manufacturers can work on expanding their developers’ skill sets regarding the best practices in embedded security. They should have up-to-date antivirus and cyber-attack protection softwares to protect their systems from various malware and viruses. Only software and hardware from reputable and trusted third-party vendors should be incorporated into the institution’s systems and updated regularly.

Any unnecessary softwares and files should be erased from the network to reduce system vulnerabilities; the OS should only have what is necessary so that in case of an attack, the route for security solutions is not obstructed by unnecessary clutter. Firms can also switch to a microkernel operating system to make sure that only limited operations take place in the kernel space.

What Is Modern Embedded Security Lacking?

Despite the availability of several state-of-the-art security solutions, they are not being as widely used as they should be. One of the biggest reasons for this is the lack of awareness about embedded security. Firms and developers are more focused on basic cyber security practices and tend to neglect the more pressing need to protect embedded systems.

This means that more efforts are made to protect a device physically much later after its manufacturing and installation instead of incorporating security systems within it. Thus, systems still stay vulnerable to security breaches and attacks targeted at embedded devices.

Even today, developers lack adequate knowledge about protecting embedded devices. They are unaware of which frameworks are to be used, dealing with sensitive information, choosing the most optimum security protocols, deciding the safest encryption algorithms, and choosing which hardware to isolate from the rest of the system.

Frequently Asked Questions

How Do I Decide How Much Embedded Security Is Sufficient For My System?

Deciding how much security is enough depends on the requirements and functions of the individual systems. For example, if a system is intended to perform security-critical processes, it needs to have more detailed and enriched security systems installed. Therefore, sufficient security testing and risk analysis research must be done before deciding the best security solutions for your system.

What Steps Need To Be Taken Toward Comprehensive Embedded Security?

There is no one-fits-all standard for embedded security. Developers and manufacturers should start with a detailed risk assessment and devise a thorough report about the requirements of the system. From there, they should proceed to design, implementation, testing, deployment, and maintenance. This procedure is known as the secure software development lifestyle (SSDLC) and allows developers to add better security to embedded systems.

What Is The Future Of Embedded Security?

A positive sign is that more work is being done now in incorporating and advancing embedded system security. Thus, it is also imminent that new, better, and more well-established security standards will be introduced soon.

In the near future, we may also have embedded security solutions for externally controlling the software and hardware components of devices and for their monitoring and remote visibility. These technologies will revolutionize embedded system security.

The growing popularity of wearable medical monitoring equipment, for example, is going to cause an increase in demand for reliable and secure embedded systems. This is because these devices will contain and propagate sensitive medical records and hence will have strict security requirements, forcing developers to focus more on this aspect.

Still, more work needs to be done in spreading awareness about this fairly new concept. Developers, especially, should be taught how to design and code intrinsic security options in embedded devices. Suppose they are able to identify and deal with potential threats during the design and manufacturing phase. In that case, they can not only make the device holistically secure but also significantly reduce cyber threats for the rest of the institution’s system where the device is embedded.

What Is Supply Chain Security?

The systematic verification of hardware and software security in both external and internal supply chains is a significant requirement in embedded security. The component supplier should know about secure development life cycle processes and understand security-aware manufacturing processes.

The embedded software used should be known, authentic, and trusted. Any device identifier or personal keys installed during the manufacturing process should only be known to the manufacturer. The device identifiers should also be secured cryptographically using a counterfeit-detection system.

Additionally, device manufacturing records should also have accessibility to bills of hardware and software components used. This is important so that in case of any technical issues in the future, the defects can be identified and traced easily.

What Is Transport Layer Security?

Transport layer security (TLS) can efficiently fight attacks aiming at information exposure, such as hijacking and spoofing. These attacks are one of the most common ones on networked systems. Therefore, most embedded systems offer in-built encryption.

This is how transport layer security works:

  1. Once the client and server are connected, the client, after requesting a secure connection, tells the server the type of cryptographic security supported.
  2. The server chooses the best option supported by both the server and the client and sends a certificate signed using the server’s public key.
  3. The client verifies the certificate, processes a confidential key that is encrypted using the public key, and sends the encrypted key to the server.
  4. The server and the client use the confidential key to produce two pairs of public/private keys (or a pair of symmetric keys), and hence, a secure communication channel is formed.


Embedded security may be a new term in the world of cyber security. Regardless, it is the need of the hour and needs to be implemented in all businesses, big and small, immediately. Embedded systems security is a lifelong process for the device and system. It needs to be started the moment the first component is designed, and the first code is written.

Embedded system security helps protect embedded systems from all types of cyber-attacks, suspicious behavior, and malicious activities. Unlike in other cyber security practices, security experts and system specialists need to work and coordinate with designers and manufacturers for embedded security. This is done so that only the best and most secure embedded security plans are implemented to fight any cyber threats efficiently.

Businesses and system manufacturers first need to conduct feasibility studies to decide the best-embedded security solutions and policies for their firms and products. They need to understand all the risks associated with cyber-attacks targeted at embedded devices. They should also devise agreements that discuss the security requirements of each device separately as well as the communication systems and networks.

Firms and developers should try their best to prevent attacks on embedded systems to avoid severe risks to their valuable data. This can be done by limiting access to embedded systems, integrating third-party security management solutions, updating firmware regularly, and allowing network admins to monitor and regulate connections to embedded devices.

Derik Belair

As President and CEO, Derik leads the vision, strategy and growth of Augmentt. Prior to founding Augmentt, Derik was the Vice President at SolarWinds, leading the digital marketing strategy for SolarWinds’ Cloud division. Derik has been working in the channel for over 20 years, starting his career as a channel sales rep at Corel Corp. and eventually becoming the first employee at N-able Technologies in April of 2000.
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