Starbleed bug impacts FPGA chips used in data centers, IoT devices, industrial equipment

A team of academics says they’ve discovered a new security bug that impacts Xilinx FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Arrays) chipsets.

Named Starbleed, the bug allows attackers — with both physical or remote access — to extract and tamper with an FGPA’s bitstream (configuration file) to reprogram the chip with malicious code.

What are FPGAs?

FPGAs are add-in cards that can be added to a computer system, (such as a regular desktop, a high-performance server) or can be used as standalone systems. They are small integrated circuit boards designed to run very specific code that is programmed inside the FPGA by the device owner based on their own needs.

While once looked upon as an amateur branch of computer programming, FPGAs now account for a huge market, due to the increasing use.

Today, FPGAs are used to optimize performance by running certain operations on the FPGA instead of the main CPU, and then pass the results back to the CPU.

In other cases, FPGAs are also used as a separate system-on-a-chip (SoC) that can be used to power smart devices or critical infrastructure equipment.

“FPGA chips can be found in many safety-critical applications today, from cloud data centers and mobile phone base stations to encrypted USB-sticks and industrial control systems,” academics from the Horst Görtz Institute for IT Security at Ruhr-Universität Bochum and the Max Planck Institute for Security and Privacy, said in a press release last week.

“Their decisive advantage lies in their reprogrammability compared to conventional hardware chips with their fixed functionalities,” researchers said.

This “reprogrammability” refers to the fact that users can load their own configurations (suite of operations) that the FPGA will perform. This configuration is called the “bitstream,” and is usually stored and loaded in an encrypted fashion…

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