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The Importance of Cybersecurity in Embedded Software Design

21/04/23 Ricky Wilcocks Manager, Electronics & Technology

A lot of today’s technology relies on embedded systems, including everything from vehicle cruise control to smart devices in the home. As more and more electronic devices become connected to the internet (IoT) and each other, the importance of cybersecurity in embedded software design is increasingly critical. 

The attack on the Oldsmar, Florida water supply is an example, where a hacker tried to poison the water. And it’s getting worse; vulnerability to cyber-attacks is increasing as the embedded devices controlling these infrastructures become more connected. 

It is crucial to ensure that embedded systems are designed, developed, and deployed with robust cybersecurity measures in place. Though there are a lot of systems for hackers to target, embedded devices are especially alluring, as it’s possible to access the data they produce, process, and receive. The potential consequences of a cyber-attack on an embedded system can be severe, including the compromise of sensitive data, the malfunction of critical equipment, and even physical harm to individuals.

Understanding Embedded Security

Embedded systems are small, specialised computer systems that are designed to perform specific functions, often in real-time, with a small amount of memory and power. Embedded security involves implementing security measures on these systems, such as encryption, access control, and authentication to protect against threats, such as unauthorised access or malicious attacks. These security measures are implemented at the electronic hardware, firmware, and software levels to provide a layered approach to security.

To put it simply, embedded security provides everything needed to secure both the electronic hardware and software of embedded devices. The hardware components are only small, so there are limitations as to what they can store and remember. Therefore, adding embedded security can be a challenging hurdle that needs to be overcome. A lot of embedded devices rely on the internet, which means that hackers can gain access to them, and then subsequent access to entire systems and connected devices. To avoid this, embedded security is key.

The Security Challenges of Embedded Systems

  • Poor Developer Understanding - A lot of software engineers are unaware of how to develop secure embedded devices, mainly due to a lack of standardisation and the historically lax approach to security engineering applied to these systems. Most embedded devices focus on device-specific software and often ignore the OS and lower-level components.
  • Directly Connected to the Internet - One of IoT’s most significant safety risks and challenges is managing all devices and closing the perimeter. As embedded devices are being connected to the internet, there are no firewalls to protect them. There is no way to detect network attacks, which means preventing them is more difficult. 
  • The proliferation of IoT devices - With the increasing number of IoT devices and the connectivity they provide, the attack surface for embedded systems has also increased. Cyber attackers can exploit vulnerabilities in these systems to gain unauthorised access, steal sensitive data, or launch attacks on other systems.
  • Third-Party Components - Many embedded devices rely on third-party components, and these are often used without being tested for security. If there are vulnerabilities, these often go undetected until it’s too late. Companies often struggle to keep their IoT systems up-to-date because many device manufacturers rarely provide updated security patches. Some devices may have reached the end-of-life date, while others never offered the ability to update in the first place.
  • Threats from various sources - Cybersecurity threats can come from a variety of sources, including internal actors, external actors, or even unintentional sources. Rogue devices or counterfeit malicious IoT devices installed in secure networks without authorisation with the aim to collect or alter sensitive information. These devices are breaking the perimeter of the network either to attack the embedded system: change the behaviour of the system or read data and spy. It is important to consider all possible threat scenarios and plan accordingly.
  • Growing demand - The demand for embedded systems is growing in various sectors, such as healthcare, automotive, and industrial control systems. One of IoT applications’ key features is transferring information between IoT devices, networks, and high-level information processing infrastructures (e.g., clouds, data centers, etc.). With the increasing adoption of these systems, the need for cybersecurity is also growing to protect against potential cyber-attacks.
  • Produced at Scale - A lot of embedded devices are produced at scale, which means a single problem can cause problems with cybersecurity in a big way. It can be difficult to minimise the impact of an attack on embedded devices when so many are at risk.
  • The severe impact of cyber-attacks - The impact of a cyber-attack on an embedded system can range from the loss of sensitive data to the malfunction or shutdown of critical equipment. In some cases, cyber-attacks on embedded systems can even lead to physical harm to individuals.
  • Updating Embedded Devices - Lack of ability to securely update the device. Embedded devices that have not been updated are likely to be vulnerable, but this is often something that’s overlooked. 
  • Compliance regulations - Compliance regulations such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) are increasing the need for secure embedded systems. Compliance with these regulations requires the implementation of security measures to protect sensitive data.

How Can Embedded Software Cybersecurity Be Improved?

There are a lot of ways to debug and test embedded solutions, but very few are being used. There is a big focus on boosting the security of the physical device, with less time being dedicated to securing against cybersecurity attacks. Minor security risks are extremely common among embedded devices, even those that are easy to avoid. This is often because developers lack awareness and understanding of embedded security and are unsure of which security protocols to follow. There has been a lack of information about the frameworks, hardware, and dealing with personal data. Though there are encryption algorithms available, it’s unclear which is the safest option. Without developer knowledge, embedded devices are at risk of cybersecurity attacks.

Here are some important considerations for securing the future of embedded systems:

  1. Secure Design: Embedded systems should be designed with security in mind from the outset. This includes identifying potential attack vectors and designing countermeasures to mitigate them.
  2. Secure Coding: Developers must follow secure coding practices, such as input validation and error checking, to prevent vulnerabilities that can be exploited by attackers. The DevOps approach to software development may offer an antidote—an opportunity to embed run-time security into the software for embedded systems.
  3. Regular Testing: Regular security testing should be conducted throughout the development process and after deployment to identify and fix any vulnerabilities.
  4. Encryption: Sensitive data should be encrypted both at rest and in transit to prevent unauthorised access.
  5. Access Control: Because of the ubiquity of IoT computing, devices are usually not kept in a secure location but must be exposed in the field to perform their tasks. In the absence of surveillance, this could easily allow malicious actors to tamper with or access devices. Access to embedded systems should be tightly controlled, with authentication and authorisation mechanisms in place to prevent unauthorised access.
  6. Incident Response: An effective incident response plan should be in place to quickly detect and respond to any security incidents.

By implementing these measures and ensuring that security is a priority throughout the development and deployment of embedded systems, we can help to ensure a more secure future for connected devices.

What’s in Store for Embedded Security Going Forward?

A lot of growth is happening in the embedded security market, and it’s likely that improved embedded security standards will be implemented, especially with an increasing reliance on IoT devices. It’s hoped that this demand for embedded security will encourage engineers to focus on improving embedded software. Though techniques such as adding firewalls and encrypting data are certainly beneficial, a growing number of developers will need to focus on identifying possible security risks and mitigating these as much as possible whilst designing the embedded device.

With cyber threats becoming more sophisticated, there will be a greater need for robust security measures to protect against potential attacks. The future of embedded security will see a greater emphasis on hardware-level security, the integration of machine learning algorithms, more collaboration between industries, the use of quantum-resistant cryptography, and a greater emphasis on secure coding practices. Secure over-the-air updates will become increasingly important. In summary, the future of embedded security will require a multi-layered approach to protect against potential cyber threats.

With four decades of experience in knowledge-led recruitment, the Redline Group is perfectly positioned to offer advice about future-proofing your permanent, contract and interim needs in the electronics and embedded system sector. For more information contact 01582 450054 or email .