Mobiles, Laptops & Gadgets

What Is Hardware Hacking and Should You Be Worried?

What Is Hardware Hacking and Should You Be Worried?
What Is Hardware Hacking and Should You Be Worried?

When you hear about someone, a company, or some other entity being hacked, the first thing that comes to your mind is software. Since software is the brain of modern devices, it is understandable. The power to lock out a user, steal data, or cause havoc comes from controlling the software. It’s easier to get to software as an attacker doesn’t have to be close to their target. Software updates can foil a hacker, and companies have become more aware of attacks and vulnerabilities. It’s cheaper to secure software.

Hardware security is very different. Hardware hacking is where it comes in.

What Is Hardware Hacking Exactly?

A flaw in the security of the physical components of a device can be exploited. Hardware hacking is different from software hacking in that attackers need physical access to the device in order to do it. Hardware, software, and a combination of both can be used to break a device.

Why would someone target hardware? Hardware offers less resistance, and a device model will not change over the years. Before Microsoft releases a next generation console with better security, an attacker who successfully hacks the Xbox 360 hardware can have quite a run. This applies to all the devices you can think of, including laptops, phones, security cameras, smart TVs, and Internet of Things devices.

Photo of Friends Playing Video Games

The relative immutability of hardware after production doesn’t mean they are vulnerable out of the box. For a long time, device manufacturers use components that ensure their devices are resistant to attacks. Hardware has software that gets regular updates to make sure that your device is compatible with the latest software even though it is old. Hardware can be hacked using common methods of hacking.

Imagine having to buy a new gaming console every time there is a new game type. That would be frustrating and expensive. It would be a wise decision to get a console that is compatible with older and newer games or just a small fix to be all-round compatible. On the manufacturer’s side, that means they have to make consoles that run their games just fine, because later generations of games will look a lot different. The components must be compatible with future game releases in order for the console to be a good investment.

Photo of a boy soldering a circuit board

To hack a device, a hacker needs to own, handle, or be close to the device they want to hack. The most common hacking methods involve opening the device, plugging an external tool into a port, or using special software. The common ways attackers hack hardware are listed here.

1. Fault Injection

An error that can be exploited is the result of fault injection. This can be achieved with a variety of methods, including undervolting theGPU, or short-circuiting. The goal is to make the device hard enough to cause the protective mechanisms to fail. The attacker can steal sensitive data after the system reset.

A side-channel attack is an attack on a device. Unlike fault injection attacks, the attacker doesn’t have to cause stress. They can only observe what makes the system tick, how it does so, and what happens when it fails to. This type of attack is similar to looking for your friend’s tell at a game, and Insider reported how Tennis legend Andre Agassi learned to beat Boris Becker by watching Becker’s tongue to guess the direction of his serve.

Timing a program execution, measuring acoustic feedback from failed executions, and measuring how much power a device consumes when it performs a specific operation are just some of the things that can be done with side-channel attacks. Attackers can use these signatures to guess what data was processed.

3. Patching into the Circuit Board or JTAG Port

under the machine's hood

Unlike the methods of hardware hacking, patching into the circuit board requires a hacker to open the device. They need to figure out where to connect external modules to control or communicate with the target device. A less intrusive way to control things is with a wireless device. Coffee makers and pet feeders are some of the things this method can be used for.

hacking up a notch is what patching into the JTAG port takes. The Joint Test Action Group created the JTAG, a hardware interface on printed circuit boards. The interface is used for low level programming. By opening the JTAG port, a hacker can find vulnerabilities in the system.

4. Using a Logic Analyzer

A logic analyzer is software or hardware for recording and decoding digital signals and can be used to execute logical attacks. They connect the analyzer to a debugging interface on the target device and read the data from it. If you do this, you will be able to open a Debugging console, bootloader, or kennel logs. The attacker can gain access to the device with this access.

5. Replacing Components

Photo of Boys Fiddling with a Computer

Devices are usually programmed to work with proprietary software. Sometimes, they work with cloned components as well. This is a vulnerability that is exploited. This usually involves replacing a physical component, like in the Nintendo Switch mod.

Devices manufacturers hate this and install measures that cause attempts at hardware hacking to brick the device. Even if it is to repair a broken device, Apple is notorious for throwing tempers when regular customers open or tinker with their hardware. If you replace a component that is not MFI with one that is, you can brick your device. A hacker can find a flaw in the device and modify it.

Data or logs of errors that occur when a program or device stops working are contained in memory dumps. Dump files are created when the OS crashes. The files can be used to investigate the crash in the first place.

You do not have to be a developer to understand dumps. Anyone can use the open-sourced tools to read dump files. The data from dump files is enough for a user with some technical know-how to figure out a solution. Dump files are troves that can help a hacker find vulnerabilities. This method is used by hackers in LSASS dumping or stealing Windows credentials.

Not really if you are a regular user of a device. Hardware hacking has a high risk for the attacker. Leaving a trail that could result in criminal or civil liability is expensive, and the tools aren’t cheap. Unless the reward is high, an attacker wouldn’t target a random person’s hardware.

Hardware manufacturers have to worry about the possibility of such hacks uncovering trade secrets, violating intellectual property, or exposing their customers data. They need to protect themselves from hacks, push regular updates, and use resilient components.

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