Tag Archives: key storage

What is Ambient Security?

New technology and business buzzwords pop up constantly. Hardly a day goes by that you don’t see or hear words such as “cloud”, “IoT,” or “big data.” Let’s add one more to the list: “Ambient security.”

Ambient 1

You’ll notice that big data, the cloud, and the IoT are all connected, literally and figuratively, and that is the point. Billions of things will communicate with each other without human intervention, mainly through the cloud, and will be used to collect phenomenal and unprecedented amounts of data that will ultimately change the universe.

As everything gets connected, each and every thing will also need to be secure. Without security, there is no way to trust that the things are who they say they are (i.e. authentic), and that the data has not been altered (i.e. data integrity). Due to the drive for bigger data, the cloud and smart communicating things are becoming ambient; and, because those things all require security, security itself is becoming ambient as well.  Fortunately, there is a method to easily spread strong security to all the nodes. (Hint: Atmel CryptoAuthentication.)

Big Data

At the moment, big data can be described as the use of inductive statistics and nonlinear system analysis on large amounts of low density (or quickly changing) data to determine correlations, regressions, and causal effects that were not previously possible. Increases in network size, bandwidth, and computing power are among the things enabling this data to get bigger — and this is happening at an exponential rate.

Big data became possible when the PC browser-based Internet first appeared, which paved the way for data being transferred around the globe. The sharp rise in data traffic was driven to a large extent by social media and companies’ desire to track purchasing and browsing habits to find ways to micro-target purchasers. This is the digitally-profiled world that Google, Amazon, Facebook, and other super-disruptors foisted upon us.  Like it or not, we are all being profiled, all the time, and are each complicit in that process. The march to bigger data continues despite the loss of privacy and is, in fact, driving a downfall in privacy. (Yet that’s a topic for another article.)


The smart mobile revolution created the next stage of “biggering” (in the parlance of Dr. Seuss). Cell phones metamorphosed from a hybrid of old-fashioned wired telephones and walkie-talkies into full blown hand-held computers, thus releasing herds of new data into the wild. Big data hunters can thank Apple and the Android army for fueling that, with help from the artists formerly known as Nokia, Blackberry, and Motorola. Mobile data has been exploding due to its incredible convenience, utility, and of course, enjoyment factors. Now, the drive for bigger data is continuing beyond humans and into the autonomous realm with the advent of the Internet of Things (IoT).

biggering 1

Bigger Data, Little Things

IoT is clearly looking like the next big thing, which means the next big thing will be literally little things. Those things will be billions of communicating sensors spread across the world like smart dust — dust that talks to the “cloud.”

big data

More Data

The availability of endless data and the capability to effectively process it is creating a snowball effect where big data companies want to collect more data about more things, ad infinitum. You can almost hear chanting in the background: “More data… more data… more data…”

More data means many more potential correlations, and thus more insight to help make profits and propel the missions of non-profit organizations, governments, and other institutions. Big data creates its own appetite, and the data to satisfy that growing appetite will derive from literally everywhere via sensors tied to the Internet. This has already started.

Sensors manufacture data. That is their sole purpose. But, they need a life support system including smarts (i.e. controllers) and communications (such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and others). There is one more critical part of that: Security.

No Trust? No IoT! 

There’s no way to create a useful communicating sensor network without node security. To put it a different way, the value of the IoT depends directly on whether those nodes can be trusted. No trust. No IoT.  Without security, the Internet of Things is just a toy.

What exactly is security? It can best be defined by using the three-pillar model, which (ironically) can be referred to as “C.I.A:” Confidentiality, Integrity and Authenticity.



Confidentiality is ensuring that no one can read the message except its intended receiver. This is typically accomplished through encryption and decryption, which hides the message from all parties but the sender and receiver.

Integrity, which is also known as data integrity, is assuring that the received message was not altered. This is done using cryptographic functions. For symmetric, this is typically done by hashing the data with a secret key and sending the resulting MAC with the data to the other side which does the same functions to create the MAC and compare. Sign-verify is the way that asymmetric mechanisms ensure integrity.

Authenticity refers to verification that the sender of a message is who they say they are — in other words, ensuring that the sender is real. Symmetric authentication mechanisms are usually done with a challenge (often a random number) that are sent to the other side, which is hashed with a secret key to create a MAC response, before getting sent back to run the same calculations. These are then compared to the response MACs from both sides.

(Sometimes people add non-repudiation to the list of pillars, which is preventing the sender from later denying that they sent the message in the first place.)

The pillars of security can be  implemented with devices such as Atmel CryptoAuthentication crypto engines with secure key storage. These tiny devices are designed to make it easy to add robust security to lots of little things – -and big things, too.

So, don’t ever lose sight of the fact that big data, little things and cloud-based IoT are not even possible without ambient security. Creating ambient security is what CryptoAuthentication is all about.

What is authentication and why should you care?

Authentication means making sure that something is real, just like it sounds.

In the real world, authentication has many uses. One of the most recognizable is anti-counterfeiting, which means validating the authenticity of a removable, replaceable, or consumable client. Examples include system accessories, electronic daughter cards and spare parts. Of course, authentication is also employed to validate software and firmware modules, along with memory storage elements.

Another important and growing role for authentication is protecting firmware or media by validating that code stored in flash memory at boot time is the real item – effectively helping to prevent the loading of unauthorized modifications. Authentication also encrypts downloaded program files that can only be loaded by an intended user, or uniquely encrypt code images that are accessible on a single, specific system. Simply put, authentication of firmware and software effectively makes control of code usage a reality, which is important for IP protection, brand equity maintenance and revenue enhancement.

Storing secure data, especially keys, for use by crypto accelerators in unsecured microprocessors is a fundamental method of providing real security in a system. Checking user passwords via authentication means validation – without allowing the expected value to become known, as the process maps memorable passwords to a random number and securely exchanges password values with remote systems. Authentication facilitates the easy and secure execution of these actions.

Examples of real-world benefits are quite numerous and include preserving revenue streams from consumables, protecting intellectual property (IP), keeping data secure and restricting unauthorized access.

But how does a manufacturer ensure that the authorization process is secure and protected from attack? With hardware key storage devices such as Atmel’s ATSHA204A, ATECC108A and ATAES132 – which are all designed to secure authentication by providing a hardware-based storage location with a range of proven physical defense mechanisms, as well as secure cryptographic algorithms and processes.

Hack 1

The bottom line? Hardware key storage beats software key storage every time – because the key to security is literally the cryptographic key. Locking these keys in protected hardware means no one can get to them. Put another way, a system is not secure if the key is not secure – and the best way to secure a key is in hardware. It is that simple.

Future Bits & Pieces posts will explore various methods of authentication such as asymmetric and symmetric, the ways in which Atmel’s key storage devices operate, specific authentication use models and other security related topics.

A Closer Look at Secure Boot and Why It’s Important

By: Gunter Fuchs

Who has not experienced a misbehaving computer due to a  virus? Or, you may have at least seen your virus protection software catching one in the act. One especially nasty type of virus is one that is executed before the anti-virus (AV) software begins its process, because it can then manipulate your AV program in a way that it does not find the virus.

Two main programs are executed before your AV program: the binary input / output system (BIOS) and the operating system (OS). The central processing unit (CPU) executes these two programs as part of the “boot” process. Making this boot process secure can increase the overall security of a system in a big way.  By verifying the authenticity of the code for the OS, a secure boot process prevents any virus from sneaking in and compromising a system before the AV program can take over system security.

To be able to verify the code, it is stored along with a “signature” of it at the time of manufacturing or code update. The signature is the output of a cryptographic hash function. (A hash function is irreversible and “condenses” a big blob of information such as boot code into a quite tiny size, 32 bytes for example.) Its inputs are the code and a secret key, known only to the generator of the signature and the verifying routine inside boot code (BIOS) that gets executed immediately after power-up or system restart. This verifying routine calculates the signature the same way it was calculated before by the host (system at manufacturing plant, online site for updating, etc.), and compares it with the stored signature. Only if the calculated and stored signatures match does the boot process continue. Otherwise, the boot verification routine halts the system.

The paragraph above describes a system where the verification (calculation and key storage) is done in the boot ROM. The picture below shows a system where the calculation and key storage are loaded off into a hardware device (ATSHA204) offered by Atmel. Storing the key in very secure, tamper-safe hardware adds a big obstacle to any hack attempt.

Secure Boot

Secure Boot