Inception: System-Wide Security Testing of Real-World Embedded Systems Software


Nassim Corteggiani, EURECOM, Maxim Integrated; Giovanni Camurati and Aurélien Francillon, EURECOM


Connected embedded systems are becoming widely deployed, and their security is a serious concern. Current techniques for security testing of embedded software rely either on source code or on binaries. Detecting vulnerabilities by testing binary code is harder, because source code semantics are lost. Unfortunately, in embedded systems, high-level source code (C/C++) is often mixed with hand-written assembly, which cannot be directly handled by current source-based tools.

In this paper we introduce Inception, a framework to perform security testing of complete real-world embedded firmware. Inception introduces novel techniques for symbolic execution in embedded systems. In particular, Inception Translator generates and merges LLVM bitcode from high-level source code, hand-written assembly, binary libraries, and part of the processor hardware behavior. This design reduces differences with real execution as well as the manual effort. The source code semantics are preserved, improving the effectiveness of security checks. Inception Symbolic Virtual Machine, based on KLEE, performs symbolic execution, using several strategies to handle different levels of memory abstractions, interaction with peripherals, and interrupts. Finally, the Inception Debugger is a high-performance JTAG debugger which performs redirection of memory accesses to the real hardware.

We first validate our implementation using 53000 tests comparing Inception's execution to concrete execution on an Arm Cortex-M3 chip. We then show Inception's advantages on a benchmark made of 1624 synthetic vulnerable programs, four real-world open source and industrial applications, and 19 demos. We discovered eight crashes and two previously unknown vulnerabilities, demonstrating the effectiveness of Inception as a tool to assist embedded device firmware testing.

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@inproceedings {217620,
author = {Nassim Corteggiani and Giovanni Camurati and Aur{\'e}lien Francillon},
title = {Inception: System-Wide Security Testing of Real-World Embedded Systems Software},
booktitle = {27th {USENIX} Security Symposium ({USENIX} Security 18)},
year = {2018},
isbn = {978-1-931971-46-1},
address = {Baltimore, MD},
pages = {309--326},
url = {},
publisher = {{USENIX} Association},