What Is Hardware Security? Definition, Threats, and Best Practices – Toolbox

Hardware security is defined as the protection of physical devices from threats that would facilitate unauthorized access to enterprise systems. When it comes to day-to-day business operations, securing hardware is just as critical as securing software. However, the security of physical devices is often neglected. This article details the common threats faced by enterprise hardware and the best practices to address them in 2022.

Table of Contents

What Is Hardware Security?

Hardware security is the protection of physical devices from threats that would facilitate unauthorized access to enterprise systems. 

Hardware Impacted in Cyberattack

Hardware Impacted in Cyberattack

Hardware Impacted in Cyberattack

Hardware security is a domain of enterprise security that focuses on protecting all physical devices, machines, and peripherals. This protection can be in the form of physical security such as guards, locked doors, and CCTV cameras. It can also be in the form of a dedicated hardware component, such as an integrated circuit that provides cryptographic functions for protecting the hardware from security vulnerabilities and deflecting attackers. Simply put, hardware security involves protection through physical devices or operations rather than security programs such as antivirus. 

In terms of ‘physical’ security, hardware security essentially entails protecting on-premise systems from natural or human tampering or destruction. This is especially necessary as attacks targeting computing as well as non-computing connected devices such as machine to machine (M2M) or internet of things (IoT) environments are becoming more prevalent as their adoption increases.

A common example of hardware security is a device that scans employee endpoints or monitors network traffic, such as a hardware firewall or a proxy server. Device-based hardware security is also achieved through hardware security modules (HSM) — devices that generate and help manage cryptographic keys for the authentication and encryption of enterprise systems. Such hardware systems allow companies to add another layer of security to sensitive architectures.

While software-based measures exist to secure nearly all enterprise environments, the use of hardware-based security is advisable in the case of architectures responsible for the connectivity of a large number of hardware devices. 

Security gaps can be exploited when the hardware receives inputs, runs code, or engages in any operation. Any device that connects to a network, either directly or indirectly, needs to be protected from attacks. Even a seemingly unimportant system, such as a smart lighting solution, can be targeted by attackers to impact productivity.

Important hardware such as servers and employee endpoints require robust security measures to ensure smooth daily operations. Threat actors may also operate from within an organization, making the drafting and enforcement of a solid internal hardware security policy as important as creating a robust external security strategy.

See More: What Is a Firewall? Definition, Key Components, and Best Practices

10 Key Threats to Enterprise Hardware Today

Firmware, basic input-output systems (BIOS), motherboards, network cards, Wi-Fi cards, hard drives, graphics cards, systems-on-a-chip, and servers — the list goes on. An organization is the sum total of its hardware devices, and each of these come with their own vulnerabilities from the component level up. This makes hardware security at the enterprise level important but highly complicated. Below are 10 critical threats to enterprise hardware in 2022. 

Key Enterprise Hardware Threats

Key Enterprise Hardware Threats

Key Enterprise Hardware Threats

1. Outdated firmware

Not every company in the ‘smart devices’ segment is an expert in IT security. For instance, local manufacturers of IoT and IIoT components such as smart HVAC, connected RFID access, and plant robots might provide firmware full of bugs and other security flaws. Careless patch management can lead to further complications and the creation of new vulnerabilities. Regularly updated firmware that is synchronized with the release of new security patches can help secure sensitive hardware ecosystems.

2. Inadequate encryption

An increasing number of enterprise devices are moving toward becoming IP-connected. However, not all of them are linked to a network using the correct encryption protocols. Encryption for both, data at rest and data in motion, is vital for the security of operational technology devices connected to a network. Information that is not encrypted appropriately can be collected by an attacker who connects to the network, while an unencrypted device can be stolen and its data accessed easily.

3. Unsecured local access

Hardware with IoT and IIoT applications is often accessible through an on-premise interface or local network. Companies, especially smaller ones, might neglect to configure these local access points correctly or protect them physically. This leaves the enterprise hardware environment open to the actions of malicious actors who can access and tamper with company systems easily.

4. Unchanged default passwords

Most enterprise devices come with a ‘default password’ that can and should be changed. However, even companies that practice cutting-edge software security might lack basic hygiene when it comes to hardware security. Personnel might continue to use the default passwords for low-cost IoT devices and turnkey hardware. Often, the password is written on the device itself and can be accessed by just about anybody with physical access to the same.

5. Vulnerable customized hardware

Many organizations rely on custom-built hardware solutions for specialized business operations. For instance, corporate data centers and customized systems for heavy engineering and scientific applications operate using purpose-built chipsets that allow them to deliver specific outcomes. Manufacturers often neglect to review the security posture of these tailor-made chips and devices as rigorously as they would for hardware that fulfills more mainstream purposes.

6. Backdoors

A backdoor is a hidden vulnerability that is often inserted intentionally during the manufacturing stage of a device. Backdoors enable threat actors to bypass authentication processes and gain root access to the device without the owner’s consent. Unlike software backdoors that can be patched easily, hardware backdoors are much more difficult to plug. They can be exploited by attackers to install malware or introduce malicious code into the system.

7. Eavesdropping

Eavesdropping attacks occur when an unapproved party accesses hardware and captures its data. An eavesdropping attack can be executed without the attacker having a constant connection to the hardware. For instance, in the case of a card skimmer inserted into an ATM or a PoS terminal, the attacker accesses the device occasionally to gain a copy of its information. Eavesdropping attacks can be triggered by injecting a malicious program into an already compromised device, allowing unauthorized access to data, and even setting up a protocol for the data to be sent to the attacker at predetermined intervals.

8. Modification attacks

Modification attacks invasively tamper with the normal functioning of a device and allow bad actors to override restrictions on hardware operating limits. A modification attack takes things one step ahead of an eavesdropping attack by modifying the communication that a device engages in.

A hardware component is either injected with malicious software or triggered with existing vulnerabilities. The unauthorized party then gains the ability to execute a man-in-the-middle attack, allowing them to receive and modify packets before sending them to the intended recipient. Unauthorized modifications to integrated circuits or the introduction of hardware Trojans are common ways to engage in modification attacks.

9.Triggering faults

Attackers ‘trigger’ or ‘induce’ faults in hardware to disrupt normal system behavior. Fault attacks can compromise system-level security through fault injections precisely crafted to grant unauthorized privileges or leak data. These attacks can have a domino effect on connected devices that rely on the compromised hardware for regular operations.

The attacker rarely needs exact knowledge of the targeted device and its faults to execute a successful fault attack. However, developing countermeasures against fault attacks requires security teams to gain a precise understanding of the attack vector. This can be difficult because the mechanisms of both, fault injection and propagation need to be understood for every available weak point and resolved without loss of data or disruption of operations.

10. Counterfeit hardware

Counterfeit hardware is an ever-present threat that allows attackers to target enterprises easily. Devices that are built or modified without the authorization of the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) can be purposefully riddled with backdoors and other vulnerabilities. These loopholes can then be exploited by attackers at a reasonable time to trigger unauthorized operations and allow malicious access to company systems.

See More: What Is Ailing RDP Security And How to Use It Safely

Top 7 Best Practices for Hardware Security in 2022

Remote work is expected to remain prevalent throughout 2022, with many companies across the globe shifting to permanent work from home or hybrid work models. This makes the monitoring of hardware assets more complicated. However, the best practices listed here can help you create a robust hardware security plan.

Best Practices for Hardware Security in 2022

Best Practices for Hardware Security in 2022

Best Practices for Hardware Security in 2022

1. Study your hardware supplier

Evaluating the security of enterprise hardware calls for the analysis of vulnerabilities that exist throughout its lifecycle, beginning right from the pre-manufacturing stage.

To minimize the risk of operating with vulnerable or counterfeit hardware, begin by identifying the vendors that supply your enterprise hardware. Check your vendor’s suppliers and study the parties that integrate the components and manufacture the individual parts that your systems use. Also, find out who your vendor’s secondary partners are if primary supply lines are stretched.

After you have a thorough overview of all your hardware supply lines, check the security measures they implement as a part of their manufacturing and shipping operations. If you do not have the resources to conduct a thorough study immediately, prioritize the most vulnerable components that will cause the largest impact in case of a breach. Consider arranging for in-depth product inspections at random intervals to gain a proper understanding of your suppliers’ daily operations.

Follow similar practices for every new and existing hardware vendor. 

2. Encrypt whatever you can

Implement encryption processes and protocol wherever possible, even for smaller devices such as external storage media and dynamic random access memory (DRAM) interfaces. Most processors manufactured today come with in-built components that facilitate encryption and decryption without compromising processing power. Wherever feasible, data must be encrypted at rest, in-motion, and in-processing.

The lack of proper encryption can lead to the transmission of credentials and other sensitive data either in plaintext or secured using inadequate protocols. Therefore, avoid relying solely on low-level encryption processes. Remember, complying with regulatory measures does not necessarily equate to your information being securely encrypted.

Leverage encryption measures that suit the security needs of your stakeholders across the board. Implement encryption systems that will prevent attackers from intercepting your systems remotely. Even if a correctly encrypted device is physically stolen, the attacker will not be able to gain access to it easily without knowledge of the required credentials.

3. Minimize your attack surface

Secure enterprise infrastructure from attacks by correctly disabling any decommissioned hardware or components, such as debug ports. Ensure that you also disable other universal asynchronous receiver-transmitters (UARTs), which are not included in the final hardware design. These include JTAG ports and other debugging and programming interfaces, unused wireless interfaces, and unnecessary Ethernet ports. For components that cannot be removed, consider enforcing MAC address-based restrictions or other challenges to thwart attackers.

Misconfiguration is one of the most common causes of hardware vulnerabilities. Watch out for errors in system configuration; for instance, keeping setup pages enabled or allowing the continued use of default passwords leaves devices open to attack. Bad actors can use enabled setup or app server configuration pages to scope hidden weak points.

Minimize the odds of misconfiguration by enabling systems and procedures that prevent mistakes in the hardware configuration process. Automate processes to minimize errors during the commissioning and decommissioning of hardware. Monitor your device and application settings regularly and compare them with industry-standard configurations to spot and correct errors in devices connected to the enterprise network.

4. Implement adequate electronic security

Electronic security can be bolstered using a secure element for storing a master key. This allows users to encrypt or decrypt other credentials and data whenever required. Secure elements protect systems against threats such as key extraction and tampering. If hardware-secure elements are not a feasible option, hardware-enforced isolation or another hardware security measure can be used instead.

Another method to enhance electronic security is using a secure authenticator device for ‘mating’ peripherals. These authenticator devices leverage strong cryptography to authenticate every connecting device mutually. This minimizes the risk of your network being exposed to counterfeit hardware masquerading as a trusted device.

To further bolster electronic security, use environmental monitoring and tamper switches for hardware that is more likely to be tampered with. In this case, the master key is uploaded into a battery-powered SRAM unit that will be wiped if the tamper switch is triggered. Trigger switches can also detect light in the otherwise dark unit interior, thus locking the device if the machine is opened.

5. Ensure robust physical security

Implementing basic hardware security measures is simple and doesn’t cost much. For instance, modern-day endpoints rely on BIOS for operating at the hardware level. Therefore, it is advisable to protect the BIOS with a password to thwart malicious users from accessing the system. Employee workstations can also be protected from remote attacks by placing them behind a correctly configured hardware firewall

The actual theft of systems from office premises can be mitigated by locking hardware to workstations using specialized lockable steel cables. In the post-pandemic corporate world, where remote work is still trending, laptop chassis can be secured with specialized locks to prevent the dismantling of the device.

Servers are an essential part of company infrastructure, and any tampering or harm to this hardware can lead to huge losses. Therefore, servers should be secured by mounting them on racks in dedicated server rooms. These ‘server cabinets’ should be fitted with lockable doors, and the front bezels of individual servers should also be secured with a lock to prevent tampering. The temperature and climate of the room should be correctly maintained to prevent damage to the servers due to overheating or humidity.

Premises should be secured with locked doors, on-ground security staff, strict identity verification, and CCTV cameras. Monitoring of IT server rooms and employee devices is crucial. Access to areas with sensitive hardware should be restricted, and physical access privilege should be governed with the same dedication as access privilege on the software front. Cloud-based access control solutions make the adjustment of permissions easier at the individual, team, department, and organizational levels.

Finally, co-location providers are gaining popularity as 2022 approaches. These vendors house and secure both, servers and staff, as well as offer round-the-clock technical assistance. Leading co-location services provide power backup, internet connectivity, trained security staff, and robust monitoring measures at a competitive and flexible recurring fee.

6. Implement real-time monitoring

Real-time monitoring of hardware ensures adequate security and prevents unauthorized actions, especially for enterprises with remote workers. Cloud-based real-time monitoring solutions notify security teams in case of a hardware breach and allow immediate incident response measures. Wherever possible, implement visual verification measures, activity reporting, and remote access to physical devices. This will help minimize response times in case of a security breach.

The work-from-home environment, popularized by the COVID-19 pandemic, has led to enterprises requiring a large number of network devices. It can be resource-intensive to identify, commission, and configure this hardware manually, especially for an employee base scattered all over the globe. Instead, consider adopting a hardware monitoring solution that is turnkey and automates the discovery and configuration of new devices. This will enhance real-time monitoring measures and allow your security team to supervise the network efficiently.

Finally, consider using integrated platforms and IoT automation to gain an exhaustive overview of your company’s hardware security posture. This information can be processed using AI-powered analytics to enable the proactive implementation of enterprise security measures as required.

7. Conduct regular audits

Regular audits of your current hardware security and cybersecurity postures are always good. Arrange for audits to spot and address operational risks. Bolster your audits by implementing regular vulnerability tests and system monitoring measures. This will help protect your enterprise from newer threats.

When it comes to hardware security, audits need to be thorough, time-consuming, invasive, and sometimes, even destructive. Electrically analyze the inputs and outputs of any suspicious modules after confirming with the manufacturer and your in-house hardware experts if the reason for its presence is unclear. Pull up reference images approved by the original manufacturer and compare them against the architecture of sensitive systems in your organization. If required, go for X-rays or other thorough procedures to ensure impeccable security of strategically critical hardware. Finally, if you’re unsure where to begin or how to proceed, hire a consultant with a proven track record to help.


Every modern-day enterprise relies on hardware as much as it does on software. Smartphones, PCs and laptops, switches, servers, and networking devices are used in data centers and enterprise networks of all sizes. In the past, this ‘hardware layer’ did not receive the attention it deserved from a security perspective. However, as companies become more reliant on interconnected technologies for every aspect of their day-to-day operations, ‘security through obscurity’ can no longer be the go-to method to protect enterprise hardware. Hardware security is critical because the hardware layer is full of vulnerabilities that remain unpatched for years on end, giving threat actors an easy target.

Hardware security has become an increasingly important talking point among organizations and vendors across industry verticals. Work to implement the above-listed security best practices instead of sitting back and expecting your enterprise assets to protect themselves from malicious parties. As more focus is turned toward securing physical technology, it is becoming easier for security teams to detect and address threats proactively.

Did this article give you an in-depth overview of hardware security? We would love to hear from you on LinkedIn, Twitter, or Facebook.


Source of this news: https://www.toolbox.com/it-security/vulnerability-management/articles/what-is-hardware-security/

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