The new Google Pixel 2 ships with a dedicated hardware security module designed to be robust against physical attacks. This hardware module performs lockscreen passcode verification and protects your lock screen better than software alone.
To learn more about the new protections, let’s first review the role of the lock screen. Enabling a lock screen protects your data, not just against casual thieves, but also against sophisticated attacks. Many Android devices, including all Pixel phones, use your lockscreen passcode to derive the key that is then used to encrypt your data. Before you unlock your phone for the first time after a reboot, an attacker cannot recover the key (and hence your data) without knowing your passcode first. To protect against brute-force guessing your passcode, devices running Android 7.0+ verify your attempts in a secure environment that limits how often you can repeatedly guess. Only when the secure environment has successfully verified your passcode does it reveal a device and user-specific secret used to derive the disk encryption key.
Benefits of tamper-resistant hardware
The goal of these protections is to prevent attackers from decrypting your data without knowing your passcode, but the protections are only as strong as the secure environment that verifies the passcode. Performing these types of security-critical operations in tamper-resistant hardware significantly increases the difficulty of attacking it.
Tamper-resistant hardware comes in the form of a discrete chip separate from the System on a Chip (SoC). It includes its own flash, RAM, and other resources inside a single package, so it can fully control its own execution. It can also detect and defend against outside attempts to physically tamper with it.
- Because it has its own dedicated RAM, it’s robust against many side-channel information leakage attacks, such as those described in the TruSpy cache side-channel paper.
- Because it has its own dedicated flash, it’s harder to interfere with its ability to store state persistently.
- It loads its operating system and software directly from internal ROM and flash, and it controls all updates to it, so attackers can’t directly tamper with its software to inject malicious code.
- Tamper-resistant hardware is resilient against many physical fault injection techniques including attempts to run outside normal operating conditions, such as wrong voltage, wrong clock speed, or wrong temperature. This is standardized in specifications such as the SmartCard IC Platform Protection Profile, and tamper-resistant hardware is often certified to these standards.
- Tamper-resistant hardware is usually housed in a package that is resistant to physical penetration and designed to resist side channel attacks, including power analysis, timing analysis, and electromagnetic sniffing, such as described in the SoC it to EM paper.
Security module in Pixel 2
The new Google Pixel 2 ships with a security module built using tamper-resistant hardware that protects your lock screen and your data against many sophisticated hardware attacks.
In addition to all the benefits already mentioned, the security module in Pixel 2 also helps protect you against software-only attacks:
- Because it performs very few functions, it has a super small attack surface.
- With passcode verification happening in the security module, even in the event of a full compromise elsewhere, the attacker cannot derive your disk encryption key without compromising the security module first.
- The security module is designed so that nobody, including Google, can update the passcode verification logic to a weakened version without knowing your passcode first.
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