Intellectual Property Exposure: Subverting and Securing Intellectual Property Encapsulation in Texas Instruments Microcontrollers


Marton Bognar, Cas Magnus, Frank Piessens, and Jo Van Bulck, DistriNet, KU Leuven


In contrast to high-end computing platforms, specialized memory protection features in low-end embedded devices remain relatively unexplored despite the ubiquity of these devices. Hence, we perform an in-depth security evaluation of the state-of-the-art Intellectual Property Encapsulation (IPE) technology found in widely used off-the-shelf, Texas Instruments MSP430 microcontrollers. While we find IPE to be promising, bearing remarkable similarities with trusted execution environments (TEEs) from research and industry, we reveal several fundamental protection shortcomings in current IPE hardware. We show that many software-level attack techniques from the academic TEE literature apply to this platform, and we discover a novel attack primitive, dubbed controlled call corruption, exploiting a vulnerability in the IPE access control mechanism. Our practical, end-to-end attack scenarios demonstrate a complete bypass of confidentiality and integrity guarantees of IPE-protected programs.

Informed by our systematic attack study on IPE and root-cause analysis, also considering related research prototypes, we propose lightweight hardware changes to secure IPE. Furthermore, we develop a prototype framework that transparently implements software responsibilities to reduce information leakage and repurposes the onboard memory protection unit to reinstate IPE security guarantees on currently vulnerable devices with low performance overheads.

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