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Improve MCU security, performance with hardware accelerated crypto

Posted: 25 Apr 2012     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:identity theft  cryptographic processing  symmetric-key cryptography 

In 2010, an estimated 86 lakh (8.6 million) households in the United States had at least one person who experienced identity theft victimisation, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. The list of security risks continues to grow when adding hacking, phishing, malware and viruses. In today's hyper-connected world, the opportunities to be victimized by a scam or theft are a mouse click or a tap on a touch screen away. Important personal and confidential information is placed on the Internet and sent across wireless connections constantly by millions of people every day.

From personal computers to wireless mobile devices and even embedded processors deployed in a myriad of end user applications such as industrial controls, residential automation and home entertainment centres, technology has enhanced user experiences. It has also heightened the issue of security.

Failing to incorporate the proper security measures into a new product can cause its demise in the marketplace. Moreover, how security is implemented is often just as crucial to a product's success. Many manufacturers utilise cryptography for security but the processing of complex cryptographic algorithms can be taxing for many processors, making the device or system seem unresponsive and sluggish.

Manufacturers must manage the trade-offs: How to deploy the level of security needed to reassure users without slowing down the device to the point where the user experience is affected?

Many of manufactures have opted to move the cryptographic processing to their product's hardware. Accelerating cryptographic processing in hardware instead of performing these algorithms entirely in software ensures that security measures do not get in the way of an engaging and satisfying user experience.

Figure 1: Symmetric key cryptography [1].

Cryptography basics
On the most basic level, cryptography is concerned with encoding or encrypting communications to keep the meaning hidden from everyone except those who are authorised of decoding or decrypting it. As such, cryptography involves a set of communication protocols often based on higher order mathematics. On one side of a communication channel, data is encrypted before it is transmitted. The receiving end will possess the decrypting algorithms so the data can be transformed back into a readily understandable form .

Figure 2b: Asymmetric key encryption (top) and decryption (bottom) [1].

In symmetric-key cryptography, for instance, both the sender and the receiver have the same key, referred to as "private" key, which is used for encrypting and decrypting a message (figure 1). This private key must be kept secret to prevent others from being able to decrypt the message. The term "symmetric" is used because both ends use the same exact key. The problem with this scheme is delivering the private key to the receiver securely.

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