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Intel Harnesses Hackathons to Tackle Hardware Vulnerabilities

The semiconductor manufacturing giant's security team describes how hardware hackathons, such as Hack@DAC, have helped chip security by finding and sharing hardware vulnerabilities.

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Ever since the first Hack@DAC hacking competition in 2017, thousands of security engineers have helped discover hardware-based vulnerabilities, develop mitigation methods, and perform root cause analysis of issues found.

Intel initially decided to organize the competition, which draws security professionals from academia and industry partners around the world, to raise awareness about hardware-based vulnerabilities and to promote the need for more detection tools, says Arun Kanuparthi, a principal engineer and offensive security researcher at Intel. Another goal behind Hack@DAC, capture-the-flag competitions, and other hackathonsis to draw the attention of chip designers, to motivate them to design silicon more securely, he says.

"There is very little awareness of hardware security weaknesses in general," says Kanuparthi, who spoke about lessons Intel learned from years running Hack@DAC at the recent Black Hat Asia conference in Singapore. "And we thought, really, how can we get this awareness amongst the security research community?"

"If you look at software, there are lots of tools for security, with software or firmware, but when you look at hardware, there are really only a handful of EDA or electronic design automation tools," Kanuparthi says.

These kinds of events are effective for bringing people together to find vulnerabilities and share their knowledge. CTFs are established methods for teaching and learning new skills and best practices. Intel also believes it is important to give students "an experience of what it feels like to be a security researcher at a design company," says Kanuparthi.

Intel is now accepting entries for the 2024 Hack@DAC, which will take place in June in San Francisco.

Tackling Hard Problems

When Intel first organized Hack@DAC, there was no standard design or open-source platform for discovering or sharing information on hardware vulnerabilities, says Hareesh Khattri, a principal engineer for offensive security research at Intel. That has changed with Intel’s collaboration with Texas A&M University and Technical University of Darmstadt in Germany. The professors and students took open-source projects and inserted existing hardware vulnerabilities to create a common framework for detecting them and new ones.

"And now a lot of hardware security research papers have also started citing this work," Khattri says.

In 2020, Intel joined other semiconductor manufacturers in aligning with MITRE’s Common Weakness Enumeration (CWE) team, which lists and classifies potential vulnerabilities in software, hardware and firmware to bring more focus to hardware.  It was an attempt to address a gap, since MITRE only maintained software weakness types, and CWE fell short of addressing root cause analyses of hardware vulnerabilities, Kanuparthi recalls.

"If a hardware issue was identified, [the CWE] would be tagged with some generic catch-all kind of [alert that said] there’s a problem or the system does not work as expected," Kanuparthi says. "But now there is a design view for hardware which you can root cause that this is specifically the problem. And that has largely been the output of some of the work that we have been doing that led to Hack@DAC and the creation of the hardware CWE."

As semiconductor manufacturers accelerate their focus on adding designs that can support new AI capabilities, security researchers are looking to identify weaknesses even closer to hardware design, Khattri adds. That has accelerated interest in new efforts like the Google-contributed OpenTitan Project, an open-source reference design and integration guidelines for securing root of trust RoT chips.

The efforts behind Hack@DAC and Intel’s work with MITRE on CWE have led to improved tooling, Khattri says. For example, hardware vulnerability assessment tool provider Cycuity (which uses OpenTitan as a benchmark for how its tool measures CWEs) claims its Radix can now identify 80% of known hardware weaknesses in the CWE database.

"We’ve seen a lot of progression in this space compared to when we started it," Khattri says. "Now, a lot of security research communities’ focus has gone towards trying to identify weaknesses that are closer to the hardware design."

About the Author(s)

Jeffrey Schwartz, Contributing Writer

Jeffrey Schwartz is a journalist who has covered information security and all forms of business and enterprise IT, including client computing, data center and cloud infrastructure, and application development for more than 30 years. Jeff is a regular contributor to Channel Futures. Previously, he was editor-in-chief of Redmond magazine and contributed to its sister titles Redmond Channel Partner, Application Development Trends, and Virtualization Review. Earlier, he held editorial roles with CommunicationsWeek, InternetWeek, and VARBusiness. Jeff is based in the New York City suburb of Long Island.

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