Security Requirements for Embedded Systems

Security is increasingly necessary for embedded systems, those ranging from the smallest RFID to satellites orbiting the earth. A number of well-documented attacks on embedded systems, ranging from hacking a vehicle’s anti-theft and control system, to hijacking printers, have been recorded. Embedded systems must be protected from physical, encryption, software, and network-based attacks. The number of attacks on embedded devices continues to rise, thus necessitating stronger security measures.

Challenges with embedded systems

In general, embedded systems are different when compared to personal computers (PCs). They are typically smaller components of larger devices or systems. They are designed to perform a specific task with real-time computing constraints and specialized operating systems. Standard security measures for PCs and enterprise systems cannot run on embedded systems.

Embedded systems often lack strong security measures for various reasons. The need to fit more functionalities into smaller embedded systems, often results in neglect of security. Misconceptions that they are not vulnerable to attacks by hackers, or that existing security is adequate to add to the issue.

The security challenges faced by embedded systems are:

  • Critical functionality – Embedded systems control sophisticated capabilities that modern society relies on. Interruption to these capabilities could have serious consequences.
  • Attack replication – Embedded systems are mass produced. If a hacker succeeds in attacking one of these systems, it is easy to replicate the attack on other systems.
  • Security assumptions – In the past, embedded systems were built with the assumption that they weren’t a target for hackers. Today modern embedded system designs are including security for the first time, with no previous experience to build upon.
  • Longer life cycle – In general, the lifespan of embedded systems is much longer when compared to PCs or other consumer devices. Designing a device to stand up to the security requirements of the next two decades is a tremendous challenge.
  • Remote Deployment – As many embedded systems are deployed outside the standard security parameter, these systems may be directly connected to the internet with no protection.

Cyber warfare and the motivated hacker

The level of security required for an embedded system is directly proportional to its functionality. The era of protecting a device from Denial of Services (DoS) packet floods or malformed IP packets has passed. Hacking organizations devote substantial resources to gather data from a device, or even multiple devices that they wish to attack. The primary step to protect embedded systems against hackers is to protect hardware from tampering. Hackers hack corporate design information by infiltrating the device, reverse engineering it and then using the information for more attacks. Any OEM building a device which could be a prime target for terrorists or hackers should consider ways to protect their system from attacks.

Security measures for embedded systems

Security is generally not considered during the design phase of embedded systems and it is difficult to implement once the product is complete. Embedded systems are vulnerable to various threats such as man-in-the-middle attacks, hacker attacks, spying and tampering, memory data errors, etc. Security measures for an embedded device must ensure that firmware is tamper-proof. Data and communications must be secured against cyber-attacks through encryption and prevention of unauthorized access. Authentication with strong passwords or protocols protects communication. There is no universal security solution for embedded systems; security requirements differ from case to case. There are various security features to be considered such as:

Security Feature Description
Secure boot Done using cryptographic encryption of the device along with hardware support to verify the authentication.
Secure code updates Ensures that the code on the device can be updated for bug fixes, security patches and so on. The code makes sure that malicious software cannot be planted into the system.
Secure communication


Implementing encryption protocols such as SSH, SSL to secure communications exchanged with the device.
Protection against cyber-attacks Providing a firewall as a critical layer of protection against attacks. This limits communication to trusted and known hosts.
Intrusion detection and security monitoring


Authentication and authorization must be implemented to detect attacks. Embedded systems must report any attempted attacks and possible malicious activity.
Device tampering detection


Tamper detection capabilities to detect attacks.

Integration of security

Various hacker attacks occur that jeopardize the security of embedded systems, and the number and severity of attacks are increasing. These systems can no longer rely on the company’s firewall as their sole layer of security. Security integration is necessary – it must be built into the device. Security can also be customized as per the needs of the system.

Even after implementing security for embedded devices, it is mandatory to check the effectiveness of the implemented security measures by checking for gaps or hidden weaknesses. Integrated security is vital when embedded systems are deployed remotely.

This blog sheds light on the necessity of robust security measures for any embedded system. If you require any support with developing secure embedded systems, please feel free to contact us. Our experts would love to hear from you and provide guidance and strategies that suit your organization.

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